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Cameron: Government plans to restructure councils will further alienate voters

"My politics is about empowering people.

Not in some vague sense of making them feel better.

I'm talking about something much more specific.

The right to make decisions about the things that affect their lives, like schools, hospitals and policing.

We have a society full of intelligent, well informed citizens who are perfectly capable of running their own lives.

They buy and sell houses, hold down demanding jobs, bring up children and look after each other.

People are smart.

But we have a political system that hasn't caught up with them.

That still tries to dictate too many choices.

I want to change that by bringing decision making closer to the people not further away.

My plan for Britain is about trusting people and sharing responsibility

That should apply to politics too and should begin with local government.

Councils are the most obvious mechanism through which power can be devolved down to people on the ground.

Local decisions should be made locally - not in Whitehall.

That's why local government is important.

It has the potential to empower people.

Today, I want to explain why I believe that local is best.

I also want to tell you why Labour's alternative - Regionalism - is a disaster that will erode local identity, move services away from the people who use them and cost a fortune as well.

In addition, I'm going to warn you about the government's plan to restructure local authorities. It's a menace that none of us can ignore. I will offer a much better model for co-operation.

And I want to set out the Conservative vision of how we can harness the talent and imagination of our people at a local level to build a better society.

Local not central

A healthy, functioning democracy cannot be run from Westminster and Whitehall alone.

Decisions about local matters should, wherever possible, be taken locally.

And the quality of these decisions should, save in truly exceptional situations, be judged by local voters.

We should trust the people.

They understand better than any remote bureaucrat what's right for their area.

And there's something else.

When it comes to making difficult choices and reconciling conflicting objectives within a local community it's healthy that the people who live there set the priorities and then take responsibility for the decisions they reach.

So Conservatives think that elected councillors are far more likely to know what's right for their area than control freaks sitting in Whitehall.

So why did the last Conservative government seek to curb the power of local authorities?

It was an understandable and well intentioned attempt to ensure good governance in the face of irresponsibility by a few left wing councils.

But these days are long gone.

The Conservatives have a proud tradition of local rule and civic pride that stretches back to Chamberlain.

I'm excited that my party is reconnecting with a key part of its political DNA.

We're moving back into cities.

We'll be a friend to community initiatives.

We won't leave the field clear for the Liberal Democrats to posture as the party of good local government.

It's a bogus claim.

But, sadly, that's something that many voters only find out the hard way once they've suffered under the incompetence, dithering and high taxes of Lib Dem-led councils.

And Labour's records is, frankly, bizarre..

On the one hand, Mr Blair has devolved some powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And I have explained that Conservatives now accept the devolution settlement and will make it work.

He also encouraged limited experiments in local democracy such as directly-elected mayors.

I support that and I'll encourage more of it.

Credit where credit's due.

But, when it comes to local government, the balance sheet is firmly in the red.

And I'm not just referring to the jumbo-sized council tax bills that will be dropping through our doors thanks to this Labour administration.

Regionalism - Labour's project

At the heart of Labour's project for reform of local government is one word:

Regionalism.

Where this obsession with dividing England into large, remote regional blocs comes from is a matter for speculation.

Some say it's part of a bigger European Union plan.

Others say it started out as a cack-handed attempt to answer the West Lothian Question.

It's even been suggested that it's John Prescott's attempt to create a legacy for himself.

I'm not sure what the reason is.

But what I do know is that regionalism is a recipe for bad government, poor delivery, unaccountable decision-making - and a colossal waste of money.

And, even if the government is ready to ignore all that, there's another fact that you might imagine would make Messers Blair, Brown and Prescott think twice.

No one wants it.

After the successful devolution votes in Scotland and Wales, Labour announced a referendum to set up a regional assembly in the area thought to be keenest on the idea - the north east.

It was to be the flagship for the plan to roll out regionalisation across England.

We all know what happened.

Despite a massive propaganda offensive, the people of the north east decisively rejected the whole idea.

A colossal 78% voted 'no'.

Not unreasonably, everyone assumed that regionalism was dead.

Far from it.

Regionalism ploughs on

Instead the government has ploughed on, full steam ahead.

What Labour couldn't get by the ballot box it is now attempting to impose by the back door through piecemeal legislation and stealthy ministerial diktat.

Look at the facts.

They've started regionalising Transport.

And Planning.

And Housing.

They're regionalising Strategic Health Authorities.

And Fire Control Rooms

And Ambulance Trusts.

Now, Charles Clarke has unveiled an expensive and undemocratic masterplan to axe half the police forces in England and shove together the four Welsh forces into a vast 'super force'.

In pressing ahead, the Home Secretary, like the Deputy Prime Minister, is blatantly ignoring the opinions of local people.

The government would do well to listen to a damming report from Mr Prescott's own Department published while the Chancellor was delivering his budget speech.

It said: "Existing regional agencies were found to have achieved very little visibility, credibility or legitimacy in the eyes of..[the]..electorate"

But the warning are not being heeded.

It seems that nothing can be allowed to get in the way of Labour's regional agenda.

And it's going to get worse.

Restructuring

Not content with abolishing locally based police forces, the government has also initiated a creeping programme that will undermine the very councils that voters can best relate to.

This process is being masterminded by David Milliband.

He calls it restructuring.

Mr Milliband should remember the wise words of Sir John Banham, who led a Commission in the early 1990s into local government restructuring, and who warned, "any reorganisation costs more, takes longer and delivers less than any proponents of change ever thought."

Unfortunately the government is, as usual, on transmit not receive.

In many areas people will lose either their well established and highly local district councils or their historic county councils - shires that people understand and identify with.

In some places they'll be replaced by new city regions that no one ever asked for and no one - except David Milliband - wants.

There's something faintly sinister about the government's lack of transparency and desire to rush through these changes without proper consultation.

And, to crown it all, there's even an outrageous proposal - revealed in leaked documents from Mr Prescott's own department - to cancel next year's local elections entirely.

What's that all about?

Well, Labour's got form.

This isn't the first time that this government has sought to undermine the democratic process.

It moved a previous local election day for no very good reason.

It insisted on initiating all postal ballots - even when it was warned that these were vulnerable to electoral fraud.

Now it really is going too far.

Abolishing elections. Even by the standards of New Labour, this is arrogant in the extreme. The whole Milliband project is mistaken.

And interfering with traditional county and district councils that people can identify with in favour of new unitary authorities that bear little relation to existing communities is the route to further alienation of voters.

It's also the case that if politicians start to redraw electoral boundaries unilaterally their motives will inevitably be questioned.

Especially when their proposals make no sense.

Co-operation not destruction

There's already lots of scope for shires and districts to cooperate together but the next Conservative government will give councils at every level new powers to form Super Area Agreements on issues of common concern.

If they want to pool resources that's fine by me.

If they want to cooperate across regional and county boundaries that's fine by me.

If they want to share sovereignty that's fine by me.

For example, councils based around the seaside resorts along the south coast share may similar problems.

So do those around the M25, across the Pennines and here in the West Midlands.

They might want to form partnerships.

But the job of government is to enable that to happen - not to demand it.

This is the way forward - bilateral, organic, bottom up relationships designed and implemented by councils themselves - not yet another round of disruptive, expensive structural reform dictated from the centre.

We all know that David Milliband is using classic New Labour divide and rule tactics to try to seduce selected Conservative councillors with promises of greater powers.

He'll try to make it sound so reasonable.

Some people, including some Tories, will think that abolishing a layer of government is no bad thing.

Don't be fooled.

Do you really believe that Labour would ever knowingly shrink the size of government?

Of course not.

The abolition of well-established, locally accountable councils merely clears the way for the addition of another layer of administration, further up the ladder and away from the people.

And, of course, wastes precious public money along the way.

Professor Michael Chisholm of Cambridge University has estimated that the cost of the Milliband plan could be more than £2 billion.

That's £2 Billion without creating a single new teacher, police officer or care worker.

But the government won't think again because local government reform is all part of Labour's real agenda - regionalism.

These plans will cost billions, cause endless conflict and bickering and undermine democratic accountability by taking decision making away from local communities to distant regional hubs.

Who wants to travel from Carlisle to Cheshire to see a planning officer?

Who wants to travel from Cornwall to the Cotswolds to visit their health authority HQ?

At this rate, the only way we'll be able to afford a face-to-face meeting with officialdom will be to use air miles!

The Conservative vision

The Conservative vision is very different.

An incoming Tory government will sweep away Labour's burgeoning apparatus of regionalism.

Regional assemblies will go and planning, housing, transport and the rest will return to local control.

We'll restore powers to councils at both a district and county level.

But we'll go further.

Local communities will gain new powers to run themselves in accordance with their particular needs and ambitions.

Local people will have ownership of the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods.

Britain has changed - but our system of government hasn't caught up.

Society is infinitely more complex than it was a century ago.

Labour's statist answer is to attempt to control almost everything from the centre or through regional proxies.

It's an analogue solution to the problems of a digital age.

And it's doomed to failure.

The modern Conservative insight is to recognise that the rapidly growing sophistication of our society doesn't make governing harder.

On the contrary, it will make it much easier.

Individual voters are not ignorant, cap-doffing serfs who need to be corralled every five years into electing an elite government of specialist decision makers.

That linear, top down model, upon which our system is still based, is breaking down under the pressure of the radical social transformations that are sweeping the globe.

In Britain, almost half the population now goes to university.

Education and the information revolution are creating a new enlightenment, one that involves not the elites but the masses.

In the 21st century, citizens, equipped with degrees and broadband connections, are the equals of those who aspire to rule them.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that this vision applies only to high tech university towns and prosperous suburbs.

I believe that it is in our deprived inner city areas where empowering local people will have the greatest impact.

The bigger the problems the greater the need - and the stronger the willpower.

Look at what happened in Balsall Heath in Birmingham.

I recently spent a day there listening to local people explaining how they turned their area around.

Residents were being plagued by drug pushers, pimps and prostitutes.

At one point there were 400-500 girls selling their bodies on the streets.

This was a community that was having its quality of life ruined and the authorities seemed unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

So the local people took the initiative.

In effect they went on strike.

The residents took advice from the police as to how to picket legally and then started picketing the criminals in their midst.

They made their presence known via an organisation called Street Watch, and made it impossible for criminals to operate. They took the car registration details of curb crawlers and posted them on notice boards, they organised petitions to get drug dealers thrown out of tower blocks, they set up groups of volunteers to man police stations and help them open for longer. Working together they quite literally turned their community around.

Encouraged by their success the residents set up the Balsall Heath Forum.

It has representatives of many community groups sitting on its board and is now a thriving force for good in the area.

That's just one example of the potential of our people..

Why are we not putting that intelligence, that knowledge, that expertise to work in the way we run this country?

Why is there nervousness in Westminster about sharing power with the public?

Why does the government try to shut people out of decision-making?

As Prime Minister, I will open the gates and let the people into the citadels of power.

I will deregulate our system of government, as previous Conservative governments deregulated the economy.

I will examine ways of handing control of decision making to local communities and freeing them from the suffocating embrace of the man in Whitehall who, in this information age, is ever less likely to know best.

Under the Conservatives, Britain will go local - because local works.

It's on the ground that the solutions to many of the problems that face our society are being worked out.

The people of Woking aren't waiting for a global solution to climate change.

Their borough council has led the way in innovating to reduce carbon emissions through the use of combined heat and power sources of energy; developing environmentally friendly energy from waste and a 30% improvement in home energy efficiency.

The people of Bradford didn't sit on their hands when it came to looking after their vulnerable children.

Rather than ferry kids in care around West Yorkshire, the district council built five new children's homes in the city to provide good quality residential care for those vulnerable youngsters who need it.

By bringing these children closer to home many have been reunited with their families, and some have even moved back home to live.

And I want to pay tribute to Tory-run councils in London that have taken the initiative in tackling homelessness.

By scouring every estate for empty houses and spare space and then renovating, and in some cases building, new accommodation within existing structures they've created 10,000 new homes.

So a local initiate has helped thousands of people, often those most in need, to find a place to live.

As we give more power to local people we'll have many more success stories like these.

Of course, as with all deregulations there will be mistakes.

Not every choice will be the right one.

But, overall, I am convinced that the quality of decision-making will improve.

By encouraging pluralism and experimentation we'll be able to see what works.

And, just as importantly, the level of satisfaction with our system of government will rise commensurately.

Forward-looking Conservatives welcome the fact that society is becoming ever richer in both human capital and technological innovation.

We want to apply that insight to the way that political power is exercised.

And we believe that local government can become a proving ground for the rejuvenation of democracy.

For us, the future is exciting and full of optimism."

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