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LGC CENTRE WATCH

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David Curry, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, sees incoherence from all parties on local government. ...
David Curry, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, sees incoherence from all parties on local government.

The end of July marks the dog days at Westminster. The agreeable diversions of champagne parties in College Gardens are over.

Outside the House the drifting mass of tourists combine with the halting jostle of traffic to ensure movement around the parliamentary campus is slow and laborious. Inside it is airless and stale. MPs are ratty, fed up, and tired.

Where has this long, dragging session left local government? The honest answer is probably deeply confused, not a little cross, and apprehensive. Labour and the Conservatives have developed policies for local government, but neither has elaborated a coherent philosophy of what local government is for.

Labour has relaxed the financial austerity the Tories imposed on councils. It is moving towards a contractual view of local/central government relations. It has responded to the chronic need to refurbish council housing stock. It has granted councils general power to act in the local interest. It has spoken almost lyrically about partnerships.

But at the same time the government has prescribed new structures with an intolerance bordering on contempt for traditional arrangements. Hilary 'Hatchet' Armstrong saw the Local Government Bill home with Stalinist rigour.

The government has again by-passed councils in providing cash directly to schools. The Bonapartisation of education continues apace. The government's plans for NHS modernisation - including joint working, shared budgets and the mergers between social services and primary care trusts - could augur the demise of local authority responsibilities for social services.

The government cannot make its mind up over the regional plan. It reinforces regional policy making and the cash to deliver it, but blows hot and cold over regional assemblies.

It urges the election of mayors to reinvigorate local democracy, but chips away at the services they are supposed to revolutionise. The region, the city/state or the city alone? We are still in the dark as to the preferred geometry of accountability beyond London.

The Tories pursue equally divergent courses. The penitential mood has swept away the old resolution to constrain spending. Regional planning guidance and national targets for house building are to be swept away in favour of community plans.

Regional development agencies will be abolished and their role devolved to councils. Regional government - another tier of bureaucracy - gets a shuddering 'no'.

Yet schools are to become 'free', leaving local education authorities largely without function. If Labour attacks LEAs from above, the Tories assaults them from below in the name of 'parent power'.

The policy logic for both parties is to question the continuation of two-tier structures - in which Labour intends to require elections every two years, in rotation, to afford the citizen the pleasure of an annual pilgrimage to the polling booth, or whatever surrogate is in favour at the time. Sweet talk, but an unsentimental assertion of who is the boss. The centralised state as yet brooks no competing legitimacy.

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