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The nation needs a new Thatcher - a localist one

Nick Golding
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We need someone with the vision and determination to go against the grain of conventional wisdom and the grumbles of vested interests to take difficult decisions in the national interest, says Nick Golding

The 1980s were a turbulent era which, to a greater extent than most decades, set the scene in which politicians and public servants operated in the years that followed.

As the columns of Sir Merrick Cockell and Lord Beecham indicate, Margaret Thatcher remains a divisive figure. Many - including her opponents - respected Mrs Thatcher’s forcefulness; she remains the leader against whom all contemporary leaders are compared and it is on the 1979-1990 foundations that all political operators have since built policy.

However, it is hard to argue that her premiership was anything other than a force for centralisation. In his LGC column, Tony Travers recalls how councils’ ability to set their own levels of taxation diminished and the disastrous poll tax not only poisoned central/local relations at the time but sowed the seeds for the current top-down local government finance system. During the 1980s authorities that opposed Thatcherism faced abolition but, it must also be remembered, decisions were taken that led the worst underperformers to improve their acts.

Mrs Thatcher’s death is not only a reason to look back at past battles. It marks an opportunity to assess where we now are as a society, examining the current balance of power between the government and councils, our perceptions of social justice and our ability to make sustainable improvements to communities.

This week we learn the Department for Education has - without warning - ended central funding for sector-led improvement of children’s services. This will further reduce councils’ ability to influence education and children’s social care, shifting power to the DfE and to Ofsted, a quango. Education secretary Michael Gove’s decision could blow out of the water councils’ efforts to implement a system he once supported.

We have also seen the latest repercussions of the government’s housing benefit cap that is leading London councils to move residents out to less expensive areas. While local government’s moves to devise a protocol for rehousing are to be welcomed, the fact remains that yet again councils and their vulnerable residents have suffered as they react on the back foot to an ill-thought-out central decision.

LGC also reports on the chaos surrounding the implementation of welfare reforms. The four north-west councils testing out universal credit were given tight implementation deadlines, Whitehall supplied IT that was entirely unfit for purpose and communication by the government has been poor. In most places the rollout deadline has had to be changed. These are a mere three examples of an unhealthy power balance in which an incoherent centre forces national straitjackets on local actors.

England needs a new Thatcher: a person with the vision and determination to go against the grain of conventional wisdom and the grumbles of vested interests to take difficult decisions in the national interest. The new Thatcher will be a localist, who wrenches the power from the centre and gives it to the people who know how to exercise it best: local leaders.

Nick Golding, acting editor, LGC


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