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LGC CENTRE WATCH

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David Curry, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, applies the dustbin test to Hilary Armstrong's mediaspeak ...
David Curry, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, applies the dustbin test to Hilary Armstrong's mediaspeak

Whenever I listen to local government minister Hilary Armstrong I realise why education secretary David Blunkett introduced a literacy hour into the school curriculum.

Do not get me wrong, I like Hilary. After all, she is pursuing many of my own policies - not as many as minister for planning and construction Nick Raynsford, but still a respectable record of continuity.

But I do recommend to Hilary a modest step that would make life easier for all of us, and especially for her. I do wish she would try speaking English.

She is, of course, typical of the government as a whole, in that she replaces the normal rules and vocabulary of the English language with a peculiarly Orwellian mediaspeak that substitutes slogan for meaning. But she displays an especially advanced form of this political dyslexia.

Hilary was in particularly dislocated form in the House of Commons when introducing the Local Government Bill. It came fresh from its mauling in the Lords to have its entrails exposed to the baleful gaze of a shoal of former council leaders on the Labour benches, almost all of whom poked at it as if it was a pile of discarded and infested clothing.

In these circumstances the sensible thing to do is to explain in simple and direct terms why the government thinks change is necessary. Why will new structures necessarily mean better local government?

Is existing local government beyond hope of reform, and if it is what is the point of nominating beacon councils? Cannot even a beacon council maintain its existing arrangements? What are the implications of frontline first for local government?

The inescapable answer is that change is necessary because it is . . . change. The Millbank mantra of modernisation has struck. Old bad, modern good - yet more shades of Orwell.

This means a new culture, declaimed Hilary. It is - the killer argument - modernisation. Yet what is the meaning of 'modern'? What actions flow from a 'new culture'? How does it answer the dustbin test volunteered by former shadow environment secretary Gillian Shephard: who do you complain to if the dustbin is not emptied on time?

The former Labour council leaders watched in frank disbelief as the system that had brought them to local eminence was comprehensively consigned to the dustbin of history.

Ironically there are some perfectly good things in this Bill, and if the government is willing to turn it into an enabling measure, rather than a piece of prescription, it could become a rather good piece of legislation.

After all, we now have so many inspectors (so many I sometimes wonder if inspectors are now more important than electors) that the sensible course of action would be to specify what performance is required of councils and then let them decide how to achieve it. In other words, prescribe the ends but permit a choice of the means, including those based on present structures.

But that means focusing on what we want local government to do rather than on what we want local government to be. It may not fit in with New Labour's prescriptions but it offers a much better response to the dustbin test.

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