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The Conservatives haven't lived up to their rhetoric

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The limits of David Cameron’s Conservative commitment to localism have been evident for some time.

At the New Local Government Network thinktank’s annual conference, shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman repeated the party line that the party’s Control Shift green paper amounted to a “radical” decentralisation of power.

That claim rang hollow when it was first aired last year. The proposals in the paper - especially the power of general competence - were welcome but could largely be seen as sensible extensions of existing government policies.

The truth is the Conservatives’ actions have continually failed to live up to the party’s localist rhetoric.

Furore

The prime example is the furore over fortnightly bin collections. Eric Pickles, the party’s chairman and election supremo, memorably threatened to expose any Conservative council “cooperating” with government plans to encourage recycling with alternate weekly bin collections.

For many, such heavy-handed tactics were simply incompatible with the party’s proclaimed commitment to localism.

If councils can’t be trusted to decide for themselves on a technocratic issue such as how often people’s bins are emptied, how could they possibly be entrusted with responsibility for services such as policing or primary healthcare?

This proposition is slightly specious - only a true fanatic would expect the Tories to place a higher premium on localist principles than the electoral gold dust that is being on the right side of the debate over how often bins are emptied - but on issues such as elected mayors, contracts for chief executives (if not the very existence of chief executives) and council tax levels, the party leadership has not been afraid to let its council leaders know what is expected of them.

It should also be pointed out that there is nothing in the Tories’ DNA to give it a natural claim to be the party of localism.

Thatcher

It was Margaret Thatcher who abolished the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils. The foundations of the regional apparatus that Control Shift professes to aim to deconstruct, were laid by the last Conservative government, which set up the government offices for the regions.

It is against this backdrop that Kent CC leader Paul Carter (Con) sought to sell a vision of councils running the basic services of the welfare state such as healthcare, policing and benefits.

The selling point of this vision was its implicit admission that local government needed to reorganise to become fit for the purpose it sought.

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Philip Hammond’s comments, also made at the NLGN, at that same conference suggest Cllr Carter has been unsuccessful.

Throw in unease as to just how permissive the Tories’ proposed power of general competence will end up being, and the limits of the party’s commitment to localism become even clearer.

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