Here is the statement Hazel Blears ought to have made to the House of Commons introducing the Communities in Control white paper:
‘Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on ways in which we can make it easier for citizens to engage in the political life of their communities. By political life, I mean the civic society around us. Citizens can become involved as individuals, members of voluntary or faith groups, neighbourhood activists or, of course, party politicians.
‘It is tempting to present any programme to promote active citizenship as marking some great revolution. We have all indulged in the perhaps over-careless language of empowerment.
‘But the truth is that building, nourishing and sustaining democracy is as much a matter of culture and confidence as of legislation. So what I have to announce today is not dramatic: it is part of an incremental programme of small measures which will make citizenship more rewarding.
‘In other words, I do not expect to make headlines today. What I do hope is that when my tenure of this office is finally reviewed, it will be said that these small steps helped to create more confident, more efficient and more responsive democracy at the level which most touches people’s everyday lives.’
But Ms Blears is her own worst enemy. If ever a white paper was launched on a torrent of gushing froth this was it. By the time we had covered the foundation of the NHS, the Putney debates in the English Civil war, the Peterloo Massacre and the campaign for votes for women (not to mention the references to Zimbabwe and Burma), I confidently expected to get the Second Coming as the grand finale.
So when we finally did arrive at the body of the white paper, with such gems as entry in a prize draw as a reward for voting (first prize a DVD of Hazel Blears’ great speeches, second prize two copies) and the return of aldermen and wait for it alderwomen, disbelief turned to derision.
Which is a pity. There is some sensible stuff in the white paper. Some of it draws on existing experiments like giving ward councillors small budgets or using the internet to make information more widely available. Other ideas have a modestly populist ring, like letting local people decide what work should be undertaken by offenders given community service orders.
Still other proposals remain as aspirations for example, making primary care trusts and the police more locally accountable, though both of these are urgently necessary. Steps to remove the barriers to commissioning services from faith groups are also worthwhile. And while the notion of awarding prizes to encourage voting can easily be mocked your columnist suggested giving out air miles as a reward for voting some years ago, mainly intended as a means of allowing people to flee the country during general election campaigns it is a cheerfully harmless wheeze.
Inevitably, the enthusiasm for directly elected mayors has attracted most attention, probably because of the cordial loathing most councillors seem to have for the idea. But all the parties are singing from this particular hymn sheet and the real issue is what additional powers they will need if they are to be the leaders and shapers of communities in deed as well as name. Here again we have to wait for further elaboration.
But will the government deliver workable legislation to implement all this? The besetting sin of this administration is incompetence the rush to get things done before it has worked out how. See tax credits, the Rural Payments Agency and NHS computerisation of patient records. Until this question is answered citizens would be well advised to contain their rapture.
Let us hope that Hazel calms down. The executive summary declares: “We want to shift power, influence and responsibility away from existing centres of power into the hands of communities and individual citizens.” And again: “Councils remain at the heart of local democracy.”
Prove it, Hazel, prove it. And in doing so for heaven’s sake cut the guff!