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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE DEVOLUTION OF POWER TO LOCAL GOVERNMENT?

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The Guardian (p21) carries a comment piece by columnist Jonathan Freedland about the state of local democracy and w...
The Guardian (p21) carries a comment piece by columnist Jonathan Freedland about the state of local democracy and what groups such as the LGA can do to thwart the centralising tendencies of Tony Blair.

He points out that the mayor of London Ken Livingstone's plans for the capital may be difficult to realise because he just doesn't have the staff. Unlike his counterparts in Edinburgh and Cardiff, Ken had no equivalent of the Scottish or Welsh Office to inherit.

But, despite the frustrations, he has some real power. He has been horrified to discover that he alone can decide on planning applications. He's realised that a corrupt successor could grow very fat on the bribes of property developers.

All of which makes Mr Livingstone a figure of envy - at least to the 1,500 or so people gathering in Bournemouth for the LGA confernece. He describes the delegates as 'foot soldiers in the army of grassroots democracy'. But he points out that their outlook is not nearly as sunny as Ken's.

'Not for them the buzz of a glamour mayoralty. They are stuck with the thankless tasks of clearing up rubbish, organising libraries and tending the elderly in villages, towns and cities which don't get Technicolor attention. But that is not their complaint; they are happy with the job they are supposed to do. The problem is a central government which seems hell bent on stopping them doing it.'

In the areas of substance that matter, the government is sending the devolution process into reverse - crushing local authorities by grabbing their powers and keeping them for Whitehall, he writes.

Gordon Brown's last budget bypassed local education authorities by sending top-up money for schools directly to head teachers. Now the LEAs fear they will be done away with altogether, with London sending even the core money to schools direct.

In health something similar is afoot, with Alan Milburn centralising yet further an already centralised service. Local councils now fear the health secretary is eyeing up one of their biggest jobs: responsibility for the elderly. In every government department there are ministers and bureaucrats handing money to councils on condition that they spend it Whitehall's way - to meet Whitehall's targets on Whitehall's timetable.

No wonder people in local government feel as besieged as they were in the dark days of Thatcherism, he says. Not only is turnout in local elections depressingly low but now, as then, they face an ideological enemy in Downing Street. For all his talk of community, Tony Blair has little patience or respect for councillors and their works. In the Blairite view, local democracy is not the route to efficient public services, but an obstacle in the way.

If schools need to be turned around, then LEAs are not the ones to do it; only Whitehall can. The government's guiding maxim is the old cliche: 'If a job needs doing, you'd better do it yourself.'

That leaves the folks in Bournemouth with quite a challenge. They have to tackle head-on the notion that democracy and quality are enemies. They could begin by pointing out that central government is hardly a paragon of efficiency itself. Ken Livingstone says no local council could ever match the home office's asylum and immigration department for sheer 'incompetent maladministration'. And it is the ultra-centralised NHS which has produced 'postcode rationing' - failing to bring the equality of provision that is meant to be central government's forte.

Next, councillors have to improve their own performance, providing better services and communicating with their constituents more often and more fluently (one of Bournemouth's big themes). They need to disprove their critics in central government, showing they can raise their game.

Finally, they have to remake the case for democracy in principle. That means persuading us all that a pin-striped bureaucrat in Whitehall is never going to organise a home-help system for the elderly in South Shields as well as a person who lives among, and was elected by, the people of South Shields. They need to turn back on Labour the very same logic Labour itself deployed to argue for devolution in Scotland, Wales and London: that, in Mayor Livingstone's words, 'You can't run Britain from the centre.'

He concludes: 'If the folks gathering in Bournemouth today can remake that case, they will not only arrest Labour's stealth programme of centralisation. They might even even create a virtuous circle.

'For the better job they do, the more power and money we'll all be prepared to give them - and the more we'll want to vote when their jobs come up for election. Ken has shown that local democracy can be exciting. Now the grassroots army have to show that it can work.'

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