Saturday 10 November 2012

The Localism Agenda

In a continuing climate of widespread public disenchantment with the political status quo, the issue of localism has gained vital traction recently, encouraged by evidence that the British public is becoming increasingly interested in local issues at the expense of national politics. This is hardly a surprise, since in a period of hefty economic belt-tightening it is to be expected that people's interests might shift closer to home, pursuing interests more closely related to their personal well-being. This should represent an excellent opportunity for the Conservative government to pursue their localism agenda in an effort to further reduce what they refer to as "top-down" decision making, thereby in theory making politics once again relevant to the average person.

While increased public involvement in government is a stated interest of all major British political parties at the moment, the Conservatives seem to be alone in their unique ability to make localism an important part of that strategy. Even strong voices on the left of the political spectrum have accused the Labour opposition of possessing too much of an "instinct to control" and of following a leadership style too close to that of a "management consultant". Noting an "adversarial" relationship between people and politicians and calling for a more "collectivist" form of politics, the Fabian Society nonetheless fails to feature localism as an aspect of their own agenda, seeing education instead as the only element necessary for a renewed interest in their profoundly centralist style of government (they are also thoroughly wedded to the authority of the EU, drawing opposition even from other opinion-formers on the left).

While they might not realise it, the Conservative government here uniquely occupies a position much closer to the desires of the public than its opposition does. With Labour increasingly being viewed as the party of the advancing public sector, motions such as the widely-touted Localism Act and the Community Right to Bid, which allows local people to bid for and buy assets and businesses they believe are vital to the local community, are a welcome break from the dominance of Whitehall.

Last week Lord Michael Heseltine published "No Stone Unturned", his long-awaited appraisal of Britain's growth dilemma, in which he makes a whopping 89 individual policy recommendations. Localism is unsurprisingly a prominent feature of the report, which has gathered praise for its awareness of the crucial importance of regional strategies in the journey towards renewed growth. At over two hundred pages in length however, the report suffers from severe overcomplexity that at times leads to it becoming almost contradictory in the advice it offers. Preaching the merits of small government, even claiming outright that "big government does not work", he then offers a policy of  central government "picking winners" as the only feasible means of producing a sound industrial strategy, in spite of the serious failings suffered by this approach in the past (I have also disagreed with such a stance in other contexts).

Even among its supporters there are claims that the study simply does not go anywhere near far enough. The Institute of Public Policy Research, a think-tank, lauds Lord Heseltine's approach, though it notes that his proposed "devolved" funding arrangements in fact add up to an even more centralised single pot of money for which all regions must bid, in reality actually tightening the grip of central government on local prosperity. Unusually, this is a view held by thinkers on both ends of the political spectrum: while Lord Heseltine is clearly aware of the need for a sophisticated local agenda, it would seem that his political instincts return his gaze to Westminster and Whitehall at every turn. To reduce bureaucracy, for example, he sensibly suggests simplifying local administration, although he goes on to state his belief that this is best achieved by combining local councils into unitary authorities. This is perplexing, as such a move would clearly remove many of the decisions being made from a purely local level, making local councils fundamentally less local. He advocates widespread government intervention into foreign purchases of British businesses, adding a treacherous political facet to an important part of private investment, and even goes as far as recommending the establishment of city mayors in spite of the "no" vote in the referendum earlier this year. While I welcome the idea of  city mayors, such a move would hardly be a victory for democratic choice and would be unlikely to help re-engage a disenchanted public.

The Adam Smith Institute points out that Lord Heseltine seems sadly unaware of the natural movement towards more local decision making that is already taking place, facilitated in part by improvements in technology and communications infrastructure, that allows action to be taken on a more case-by-case basis. Likewise, while his recommendations for education reform offer some innovative suggestions, such as linking schools much more closely to local business leaders, they are nowhere near as radical or dynamic as the schemes already put underway by Michael Gove, the Education Minister. While certainly a move in the right direction, the report seems unfortunately symptomatic of the tendency of those in central government to believe that important decisions are best taken by central government alone, keeping local politics on a very short leash. A sound growth agenda must fight this instinct and devolve decisions to those who understand them best.

I am reminded by this situation of the leadership techniques used by one of the most venerable state institutions, the British Army. Beyond its reputation for rigid hierarchies and strict conformism, the Army establishes a firm division between the types of authority possessed by NCOs and its Commissioned Officers, the former highly experienced, and the latter well-educated. While officers operate the big-picture plan and maintain the moral imperative, NCOs are responsible for conducting the operation on the ground, ensuring the job is done well and that the plan is successfully executed. Neither group trespasses on the territory of the other, and micromanagement by officers often results in disaster and embarrassment. Officers tend to lack the technical expertise to do the jobs of sergeants well, and as such are likely only to neglect their own important tasks should they attempt to do so.

This post is a response to "No Stone Unturned in Search of Growth", a report by Lord Michael Heseltine which can be downloaded here.

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