The second reading of the Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Bill took place last month, marking another step forward for one of the projects I was most closely involved in before I left No 10 for an academic life.
This piece of legislation is overdue. The issues it deals with are important. These include litter and graffiti, fly-posting, fly-tipping and abandoned cars. These are issues in their own right, and their resolution may be the only time the public makes a demand of what have, until now, been non-statutory services.
There are three issues, nonetheless, which warrant further attention.
First, why has it taken so long to reach this stage? The issue of liveability was a live one from around 2000 or so in government, and in local government for a good deal longer, with the initial work done through a cross-cutting review of public space as part of the 2002 spending review. Two rounds of consultation and two-and-a-half years later, we have legislation. With luck, the measures may be in operation later this year. I've heard of much longer delays but one still wonders whether, in the intervening period, good local government with a more general freedom to act might not already have dealt with the problems.
Second, why do we need to have nationally based policies on these issues in the first place? For example, why is it that Manchester City Council needs primary legislation to prosecute Network Rail for the neglect of its land in the city? There is something inevitable about local government losing some of its functions over time. It is to the benefit of the whole country that local government and its partners in the community sector developed hospital provision in the late 19th century. But it was inevitable too, once nationwide health coverage became a goal of policy, that the role of councils would be loosened. Similarly, a national government's concern with education standards over a generation was always likely to strain and then break a system of local accountability over schools. But litter and graffiti? At one level, it is hard to see the point of local government if councils cannot make and enforce policy on these issues through by-laws.
Third, where have some of the more radicalmeasures gone? I remember a high-ranking civil servant asking me, as we drew up the original consultation paper, why we could not simply ban chewing gum. A good question, strewn with complications but which, posed as a local issue in the Isle of Wight or Aberdeen - to take two relatively isolated and environmentally attractive places - might just produce a useful and interesting experiment.
So long as policy is made on a national basis - especially on essentially local issues - the danger is that innovation will be stifled. Risks that can be sanctioned in local areas will never make sense if played out in a wider context. The anti-social behaviour laws are a good case in point. For those of us who live in areas where anti-social behaviour is a serious problem, the hard laws we have spent seven years edging gradually towards come too late, the delay due in part to the distaste and squeamishness of some MPs. We need innovation and its failures, if its successes at local level are to become the planks of national policy for the future. For that, we need strong local government.
But there's the rub. The greater the extent to which one agrees with the case for a more localist approach to the local environment, the more important it is to face up to the fact that, in relation to day-to-day policy problems, the powers to act are very often already there. In too many places, the issue is not powers but a preparedness to use them. Unlike in other issues, where the government has a role, here at least voters should have the final say on whether they want action, and councils need their own powers to respond.
Director, Institute for Political & Economic Governance,
University of Manchester