Thursday, July 05, 2007
More power for communities is good news if done properly
I applaud these ideas, but I think we need caution in quite how they're executed. At present, power in this country is far too centralised, and we desperately need more power in the hands of more people locally. But the headline today seems to be about taking power from town halls, rather than from Whitehall. It is my view that town halls don't have enough power in the first place, and that this is the cause of the democratic deficit we see today. The current government, and those before it, have become ever more centralised, stripping local government of the powers it once had. Decades ago councils could revolutionise our towns and cities, whereas now they are sometimes little more than glorified planning committees. So of course local people aren't interested. Why would they be?
The way to get more people involved in decision making is to trust local communities more - to give powers to the town halls so that the people who local communities elect to govern their local area have the chance to really change things. I think that frustration with town halls today is less to do with councillors not using their powers properly than it is to do with councillors not having enough power in the first place. And if we were to get this power, this in itself would rejuvenate local decision making, make councillors more responsive to community wants and needs, and involve far more local people. Give communities much more of a say in prioritising - but do it through the institutions that exist already, the link between communities and government - the Councils!
The idea of votes for communities on spending priorities is a good one, but it needs to come as part of a wholesale re-alignment of the relationship between central and local government, giving more power to town halls and letting local councils decide how best to devolve that down to communities. Where Councillors are working with communities now, there are some really positive outcomes, because of course local people know best how to solve local problems. But simply giving power directly to communities from central government, by-passing councils and Councillors, ignores the vital unifying force and role in community leadership that Councillors have. And it's imperative that we don't do that.
We need to remove as much power from government as possible and of that which is still there local government at various levels can handle much of.
I dislike the idea of giving money to 'communities' to spend, in my experience the community as far as local government is concerned with is not actually a community in society but an artificial construct for political purposes.
Why not let people use their own money how they wish, for personal or community purposes. Tax less and people will be more willing to spend their money on charity and local amenities.
So I think it's a good thing that the government is willing to give up some of this power. If people are given cause to care more about their communities, and given a loud voice in how communities are financed, then this will engender much more civic pride.
I disagree that the concept of communities is somehow made up. I think both central and local government have a duty to protect the vulnerable members of our society by providing services to fit their needs, whilst also providing a basic level of common services for everyone.
Of course taxes should be as low as they can possibly be to facilitate this, and this can be achieved through new ways of working and through minimizing waste. But I think relying on people to spend their excess money on charity and local amenities risks real hardship for the most in need.