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Hazel Blears steers the way

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Hazel Blears steers the way, says fellow MP David Curry in his regular LGC opinion column.

On the wall behind the chairman was a tapestry that managed to look both declamatory and dreary by Pat Taylor entitled Democracy.

It consisted of sequences of words on a dull brown background - suffrage, vote, election, open, equality, liberty and, for some reason, Aristotle. On the opposite wall was a tapestry with a series of presumably democratically significant dates repeated in columns in dull red - 1832, 1867, 1918, 1928, 1968.

I recognised the dates of extensions of the suffrage though not the significance of 1968 when I was working in Newcastle. If anything significant happened I must have been in bed at the time. Quite frankly I wouldn’t want either of them in my living room.

On the third wall was a portrait of a somewhat scary-looking Mrs Thatcher done entirely in tones of blue by Ruskin Spear entitled, imaginatively enough, True Blue. I could think of a place for that picture at Curry Towers.

And, slap bang in the middle of this room - the Thatcher Room - sat Hazel Blears. She was dressed in a smart black two-piece outlined in white piping.

She was smiling. Indeed, she was radiating happiness and enthusiasm. She declared herself delighted to be there (it is difficult for ministers to express what they really feel about appearing before select committees).

he communities secretary is the government’s little ray of sunshine: it was Parliament’s first day back, the perma-frost had thawed and Hazel was on parade to bring warmth and optimism back into our lives. She was giving evidence to the select committee inquiry into the balance of power between local and central government.

Opposite, in the chair, sat the Community & Local Government select committee chairman Dr Phyllis Starkey. Whatever she may be accused of no one has ever likened her to a ray of sunshine.

Nor, did the members of the committee look like sunbeams. Behind the arc of MPs sat the committee’s private Rasputin, the slender figure of Tony Travers, the specialist advisor for the inquiry. He maintained an air of slightly ironic amusement, occasionally darting up to the chair with commentaries on the proceedings.

Nothing very interesting was said. But what was striking was the extent to which this debate has come to resemble ships passing in the night.

The government has a credible story about improving the way it works with councils and the cautious encouragement of more initiative at local level. But because it is so incremental in nature, often technical in substance, and largely about relationships between “stakeholders” it utterly fails to resonate as an agenda to empower the individual citizen.

Yes, local area agreements are a useful tool. Yes, multi-area agreements make sense. Yes, even, sub-regional prioritising and joint ventures have merit. Of course it is right to concentrate on “how to get the best services to local people and deliver what is practical and tangible,” and to apply tests of “quality, relevance, (ugh!) accessibility, value for money.” But the mentality of subservience and command is so embedded in this relationship that people will only believe there has been a revolution if they hear the Bang.

For its part the other fleet - the local government flotilla - can still point to the continuing multiplication of quangos; the pre-eminence of national objectives in areas like planning and housing; the extraction of no more than a few titbits from the Lyons report; the resolute refusal to contemplate any democratisation of local health services. And it knows that whoever wins the general election brutal financial conditions are in prospect for councils.

As I listened to the exchanges I had a seditious thought: I thought about the ordinary citizen. Was the citizen aware of any of this debate? Did the citizen feel that life was changing because of area agreements or sub-regional strategies? Had anything happened which would tempt the citizen to look beyond the council tax?

I glanced up at Mrs Thatcher. Was she was looking even more enraged..?

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