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OPINION - LOCALISM IN FASHION

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It surely bodes well for local government that the most popular term of abuse in current political parlance is cent...
It surely bodes well for local government that the most popular term of abuse in current political parlance is centraliser.

The Tories attack Labour's target culture and control freakery, No 10 says the chancellor's hostility to foundation hospitals shows his inability to let go, and the Liberal Democrats tell us not to trust all these new-found converts to localism.

The current political context provides plenty of opportunist reasons for politicians to want to be seen as decentralisers. Both the discredited Millbank approach to political management and the problems of public service modernisation can be traced to an exaggerated belief in the reach of the centre. Opposition parties tend to become champions of devolved power - the Tories' enthusiasm has echoes of 1980s Labour.

Those sceptical of the fashion for decentralisation can point to the lack of clarity among the new localists. Reading through conference speeches proclaiming the need to push power from Whitehall, you will search in vain for an attempt to explain why some things should be done centrally and some locally. Neither will you find a recognition of the profound differences between political decentralisation, managerial devolution and consumer empowerment - all lumped together in prime minister Tony Blair's speech. No one - least of all Labour ministers - seem to recognise a decentralised state is not one where Whitehall gives away some powers - 'letting little people do little things' as one disenchanted council leader put it - but one where the centre can have its authority effectively challenged by other sites of democratic legitimacy.

Another explanation for the attack on the centre is the expression of a crisis of the modern state at the trivial level of party politics.

Politicians and public managers find themselves trying to reconcile demands for flexibility and accountability, coherence and diversity and leadership and responsiveness. This requires subtlety, empathy and public mobilisation simply impossible at the scale and distance of central government.

Both these views are right. The commitment to localism heard in Blackpool and Bournemouth may only be skin deep, but the forces challenging the centre are a great deal more profound.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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