Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Mind your own affairs, minister

Local government in the UK usually gets a bad press. If these attacks follow internal failures, they are, of course, justified. But the problems are often more to do with the way central government treats councils.

Unlike other countries, the UK has no established constitutional position for local government – for the simple reason that the UK has no constitution. As a consequence, it sometimes seems that central government treats local government like a feudal master would treat his slaves.

Ministers arrogantly issue orders, create targets, reverse local priorities, interfere, inspect, criticise, insult and punish local government – ignoring the fact that councillors are also directly elected and have a local mandate.

The present secretary of state has proved no exception. Among other things, Eric Pickles has suggested that local government spending is as big a factor as the banks in causing the UK’s economic woes and attacked Nottingham City Council for refusing to disclose all items of expenditure over £500. This comes from a central government where revealing the brand of coffee drunk by ministers could be regarded as a breach of the Official Secrets Act.

This arrogance would not be so bad if it wasn’t also hypocritical. Central government itself is far from successful in developing and implementing public policies.

To give just a few examples:

Education – the UK is well down the rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and behind its main competitors in terms of reading, mathematics and science.

Defence – the seemingly continual chaos at the Ministry of Defence regarding budgets, equipment procurement and asset management.
Health – the cancellation of the NHS National Programme for IT after costs of £13bn had been incurred.

Transport – the failure to develop and implement a coherent and effective transport policy for the UK.

Taxation – errors and delays in relation to income tax payments as a consequence of what were said to be ‘computer errors’.

Data loss – losing 25 million child benefit records for reasons that remain obscure.

Furthermore, in 2010, the Institute for Government asked political science academics to identify the most successful public policies of the past 30 years. The results from the 150 respondents showed little consensus – the most successful public policy (the minimum wage) received only 24 first preference votes. The third, fifth and sixth most successful were seen as: privatisation, Sure Start and the Human Rights Act, policies that raise many eyebrows outside Whitehall. There were hardly any votes for policies in the key fields of education, defence and transport.

It seems that central government finds it difficult to do anything right. Despite this, governments of all colours are very fond of putting councils and other public bodies into ‘special measures’ when they are seen as failing.

Given Whitehall’s own record, isn’t it time it put itself into special measures? At the same time it might deal with the 2007 Lyons review’s call for local government to be given a level of constitutional protection and financial autonomy, as well as a reduction in central government intervention. The problem is that central government would then need to find someone else to blame.

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