Communities secretary Hazel Blears claimed that while cynical political bloggers and a rising political elite threatened to erode the public’s faith in politics, her Communities in Control white paper would lead to a “flowering of new ways of political participation”.
“If you’ve read the white paper you’ll know I make it clear that it is merely the staging post on a longer, further-reaching journey of democratisation of the British state,” she told a conference organised by the Hansard Society.
Ms Blears called for the modern state to be “devolved, decentralised and dedicated to giving people the power” to control their destiny.
Academics attacked the paper for calling on councils to devolve powers while lacking any substantial commitment to a similar shift from the centre to local government.
In a report published at the conference, Professor Graham Smith , of Southampton University , said the white paper showed the government wants to shift local power to communities and citizens, but “at national level, such a redistribution of power is blatantly not on the table”.
Parliament’s unwillingness “to cede its own power... as it expects local authorities to” would lead to increased resentment as people discovered they still lacked influence over the most important political matters, the paper said.
Prof Smith derided Ms Blears’ calls for local participatory budgeting. “Local authorities have negligible fiscal independence from central government [and] only a relatively small proportion of a budget is open for discretionary allocation,” he claimed.
In a separate paper, Professor Gerry Stoker , the original chair of the New Local Government Network thinktank, questioned politicians’ desire to shift responsibility for major decisions onto ostensibly independent bodies such as the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee and the proposed Infrastructure Planning Commission.
He argued that the trend suggested politicians distrusted themselves as much as the public.
“When our own politicians see politics as a disease to which de-politicisation is the antidote, is it any wonder that we become disaffected and disengaged?” he asked.