The last week has said a lot about the political direction of this country. As we were being told of a watershed moment for devolution, councils were being entirely bypassed and a new tier of elected representative for crime and policing was announced.
It’s not the fact that elected police constables or ‘sheriffs’ are an idea stolen entirely from the Conservatives, nor that it runs contrary to all the messages from the communities and local government department that grates the most, it’s the fact they are likely to be pointless in increasing peoples’ participation.
It’s true that we need visible, accountable community leaders at the centre of any representative democracy. And while the debate on devolution has addressed the quality and diversity of those leaders, the focus has been on the extent of the power they can actually devolve.
Take the idea of petitions for participatory budgeting. We all know that financial freedoms are limited with a tight central performance-related grip over where and how cash is spent. It’s hard to see how deciding where the odd£45,000 could be spent will really inspire people or give them a real say over their local services.
With that in mind, it’s even harder to see how elected police representatives will have any impact on the devolution agenda. Will the home secretary suddenly devolve policy making on crime reduction or a slice of national budgets to these new sheriffs?
Unlikely. They’ll be in the same boat as councillors, telling disaffected voters that ‘sorry they can’t help them, its central government policy’.
So while putting communities in control is laudable, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. Stop fiddling around the edges and give local government the right powers to deliver really responsive and accountable services if it’s one thing the government needs right now it’s a quick and decisive win, not more cloudy consultations.