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TONY TRAVERS - MILIBAND KNOWS VOLUNTARY BODIES HAVE POLITICAL CREDIBILITY

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At last national politicians have realised centralisation is a problem. A problem for them, at least. Tuesday's spe...
At last national politicians have realised centralisation is a problem. A problem for them, at least. Tuesday's speech by David Miliband about devolving power away from government is as obvious an indicator of political alarm bells as one could ever hear.

The minister and Conservative policy chief Oliver Letwin appeared on Radio 4's Today programme to discuss the government's new commitment to localism. Mr Letwin pointed to the centralisation of power currently under way: how, for example, could Mr Miliband reconcile regional police forces with neighbourhood policing? The answer wasn't clear.

But the government has definitely embarked on a programme of devolving political power to communities and neighbourhoods. There have been so many speeches and carefully crafted press briefings on the subject that something will surely now have to happen.

Alan Milburn, in an article published in The Guardian, expanded on David Miliband's theme. Individuals should, wherever possible 'have their own budgets - such as for managing chronic disease or caring for old age'. Where opinion surveys indicate dissatisfaction with council or health authority provision, 'communities and local voluntary organisations should run neighbourhood services'. Mr Miliband expanded on these themes in a speech delivered later on Tuesday to a voluntary sector audience.

It is clear New Labour has decided local community and voluntary organisations have greater credibility than elected politicians. MORI's polling certainly suggests that charities and experts are vastly more trusted than Cabinet ministers or councillors. Mr Miliband has decided to put his faith in those organisations the public still trusts.

Local government would, in future 'map need set goals benchmark best practice and seek best value from a range of providers - public, private and voluntary'. The minister continued: 'We should look at the potential for neighbourhood-based grant giving, for instance, through citizen's juries, community empowerment networks or community foundations.' The implication is that Whitehall might start to bypass local government and fund NGOs and other smaller local institutions.

The Department for International Development would call the Miliband approach 'capacity building'. In effect, the ODPM has embarked on an attempt to rebuild British democracy by relying less on the discredited state sector and more on social enterprise. Make no mistake, if carried through to a significant extent, it could lead to a radical re-casting of public service provision.

What remains unclear is just how far the government could maintain universal provision in a world where there were hundreds of micro-providers.

If so, this would be strangely similar to Nicholas Ridley's vision of the contracting council put forward during the 1980s. It's a funny old world.

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