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Jenkin: Radical plans to re-empower local government

Bernard Jenkin attacks growing regionalisation and centralisation under Labour

Speech to the New Local Government Network

"Today, I am delighted to be here with the New Local Government Network, because the time has come for a wholly new approach to the government of our country. I am here to advocate what amounts to the de-nationalisation of local government.

Anybody involved in British politics today has to recognise that something bad is happening - increasing apathy, declining turnouts, the BNP coming out like monstrous spots on the face of England. From our supposed citadel of democracy at Westminster, many MPs look with increasing alarm and paralysis on the growing sense of alienation and powerlessness, particularly amongst the less well off, isolated in the great city housing estates, in rural areas, in all parts of Britain.

All politicians say that we must do something about this: that people want - and must have - more say over the decisions politicians take in their name, but do all politicians really mean it?

How do we address the sense of grievance that Whitehall decides too much, is out of touch and ignores the real needs of the people across the country? What is the answer to declining popular participation and cynicism about politics and politicians?

The failure of modern British politics: the cycle of centralisation

We must first define one of the real failures of the modern British political system. It is the cycle of centralisation. The effect of creeping centralisation of the British political system over a century or more is today suffocating the spirit of local communities, denying local democracy and creating the atmosphere of pointlessness and despair about politics.

Ever since Parliament started to vote grants to local government in the Nineteenth Century, national politics has been drawn into the cycle of centralisation which continues to this day. This process was dramatically accelerated by the increased role of the central state in two world wars, culminating in the formation of the social democratic consensus established by the Attlee government of 1945.

This finally crowned the central state as the great equaliser at the heart of everything; the master not the servant; obsessed with equality and equalisation, at the cost of efficiency and local diversity. This was the era in which Douglas Jay coined the phrase, "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better" . Today, we quote this ironically or as an attack on our centralising opponents. We all say that decisions should be taken by those closest to the problems, but is that the way we in politics tend to behave? Or does the way we practice our daily politics suggest that we remain stuck in the 1940s time warp?

Conservatives were never fully convinced by Jay's dictum. We fought nationalisation and reversed some of it in the 1950s and 60s. By the end of the 1970s, the idea that Whitehall knew better than markets and consumers had become completely discredited. Under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, large parts of the central state were dismantled and given back to the people - managers, investors and customers - through privatisation and deregulation. We decentralised administration in the NHS to trusts and fundholding GPs. We empowered school governing bodies. However, we Conservatives would be fooling ourselves if we thought we had defeated Douglas Jay's gentleman in Whitehall.

Ironically, eighteen years of Conservative government not only failed to halt many aspects of centralisation, but unwittingly accelerated it. A growing tide of regulation from Europe and from an increasing number of statutory regulators has invaded the nooks and crannies of our daily life. Parliament, increasingly a puppet of the executive under this government, has transferred more and more discretionary powers to ministers and their departments. The number of regulations passed into law was 1,770 in 1979, and 3,114 by 1997 when we left office. Last year 3,367 regulations were passed into law. The gentleman in Whitehall has been busier than ever.

Today, we all play along with the gentleman in Whitehall. There is an unwritten assumption in all political discourse that the government has a duty to ensure that every citizen can have the same provision of public services at the same cost to him or her, wherever he or she may live.

For example, members of all political parties rail against the so-called 'post-code lottery' in the NHS. Of course, nobody wants central government to pursue policies that benefit one part of the country at the expense of another. In an ideal world, everyone would be treated quickly everywhere, but that is an unlikely outcome if the central state is charged with ironing out all local disparities by central diktat, and we treat differences in waiting times as more reprehensible than uniformly long waiting times. This attitude from the top is paralysing. Does anyone seriously believe it is genuinely within the power of a politician in Whitehall to control the outputs of the NHS with such precision - or, indeed, with any precision at all?

The failure of equalisation

The reality is that after a hundred years of equalisation and central government intervention, there is still massive variation in the provision and quality of public services across the nation. The inequalities between regions lie at the heart of the debate about regional government. Disparities in unemployment, GDP per capita, growth rates, public spending per head and business formation are still as wide as ever.

The East End of London, from where Sydney and Beatrice Webb inspired the Fabians between the two World Wars, is as economically unequal as it ever was with other parts of London. The pursuit of the objective of equalisation is self-defeating creating more problems than it can solve. The people most in need of help are too often those most damaged by the effects of equalisation.

It is up to all political parties to recognise that the objective of equalising service provision has failed. We all do accept that the 'neo-Soviet' objective of equality of income would be disastrous, so why do we cling to the idea that the central state can achieve equality of outcome in so many other areas, not least in local government? England has the most intricate and sophisticated grant equalisation arrangements in the world, yet after a hundred years, we are no closer to uniformity of service provision than when we started.

Predilections for fairness and anger about unfairness are peculiarly strong feelings amongst the English. It's what makes England so different from America. However, the result is that the whole of English politics has been dragged into the cycle of centralisation.

Look at planning for example. Why does local discretion continue to be stripped away and replaced by central government diktat?

At the moment, pressures in the south are finally having a positive effect on property prices and investment in the north and in the inner cities. This is good for regeneration. However, centralisation will ensure that the money Mr Prescott spends on regeneration will be wasted by the destructive effects of his policy to build thousands of new homes on the green fields of England, sucking population and talent out of already depressed areas.

Kate Barker's Whitehall targets for new housebuilding are based on the most tendentious statistical methods, with which only the worst, die-hard socialist planners could be satisfied.

Behind her thinking is the belief that she knows better where people should live and what sort of houses they should live in. This is part of a Whitehall-devised planning system that stipulates how many houses there should be on a particular site, how much garden each should have, how much open space there should be per house, how big the windows should be, the ceiling heights, even the width of the garage.

Whitehall control: Westminster total politics

Westminster politics has become premised on the assumption that everything that happens in England is the responsibility of a minister. If it goes wrong then he or she is to blame. This government will then call for an inquiry, host a summit, set up a task force or launch an initiative to tackle it.

I recall how Nicholas Ridley tried to escape from the cycle of centralisation as transport secretary, by insisting at transport questions in the House of Commons, that late trains, and the quality or reliability of services "are matters for British Rail". But the doctrine of ministerial accountability cannot simply be set aside when convenient to ministers.

Why do we tolerate a system of government, where Her Britannic Majesty's First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister is questioned in the House of Commons about chewing gum stuck to pavements, and he promises he is "looking at a number of measures that we can take to clear up the problem." Why do we put up with this?

The system has become a great lie - the lie that the gentleman in Whitehall knows best. This is long past the point of absurdity. It is chaos.

The nationalisation of local government

Local government has progressively been stripped of independence and fiscal autonomy - effectively nationalised; turned into little more than a Whitehall franchise, through which centrally determined policies are administered. Even at the lowest level, parish councils have been hamstrung by the draconian Code of Conduct, shackling and, indeed, humiliating the people who volunteer to help their local community.

Even in the 1970s, the regulation of local government activities and the limitation of grants to create incentives to control expenditure were considered draconian. Today, councils are faced with so-called "best value", combined with manipulative spending and tax-raising controls, subject to capping, and, of course, Comprehensive Performance Assessment.

The role of local government as an adaptive, locally controlled provider of services, answerable to local people has been utterly destroyed. Local government in this country used to be the engine of innovation. Nearly all the public services we now take for granted - water, sewerage, gas, education, a safety net for the poor - were pioneered by enterprising local corporations whose leaders brought real improvements to life in their cities and communities.

The post-1945 settlement of central government dictating to local authorities is totally unsuitable for the fast-changing economy and demanding consumers of the twenty-first century. The creeping nationalisation of local government over decades is a failure. Whitehall control cannot address the diversity and complexity of local problems.

What about "new localism"?

The Left have been confronting some of these issues but so-called "new localism" fudges the real question. New Localism is defined as "devolution from the centre within nationally agreed frameworks" . For "nationally agreed frameworks" read "targets dictated by ministers". "New localism" recognises "the benefits of scale, standardisation and central intervention" have been exaggerated by Whitehall's "distorted lens" but new localism's concept of "earned autonomy" still presumes an omniscient centre. It fears "unchecked, 'free for all' localism in which a shared sense of citizenship across the nation is abandoned" - as though the central state is the ultimate guardian of citizenship. It is not. Citizenship and society exist beyond the state and can only flourish independent of the state.

The reality is that "new localism" means different things to different people. To Gordon Brown it means 'regions'; to David Blunkett it means 'local police initiatives'; and to Alan Milburn it means 'foundation hospitals'. Yet behind these policies lies the same belief in state centralism. Only last month, Nick Raynsford pondered that, "Some people would argue that central Government should give local government much more discretion to get on with the job. And, more crudely, to get off it's back. In my view, that's not the right way forward." Under "new localism", the gentleman in Whitehall will not let go.

The failure of "new localism" is all too evident in the government's regional agenda - a new layer of politicians, to administer powers largely taken from districts and counties rather than from Whitehall, for artificially conceived regions - created of course by Whitehall.

These regions do not pass what Simon Jenkins calls "the Marbella test". Try asking an English tourist on the beach where they come from. They may say Manchester, Oxfordshire or Tyneside. Few, if any, would spontaneously mention their region.

As well as conceived in Whitehall, they will operate subject to Whitehall funding, Treasury controls, council tax capping and ministerial performance targets. This is more of the same centralism, not breaking the mould. Even the voting system cements in place the ascendancy of the Whitehall political parties - namely the Labour Party in the areas that may get assemblies. This has more to do with gerrymandering the constitution than with decentralisation.

The costs will inevitably far exceed the estimates.

And all for what? Labour pretends that regional assemblies will address the English Question left over from Scottish and Welsh devolution, but they only underline that Labour's constitutional agenda lacks any coherence.

Labour's approach, under the cover of pseudo-localism, is destroying any sense of local democracy, local empowerment and local citizenship. It is destroying ownership over locally-provided services and the wider sense of belonging in local political communities. Shorn of a local voice and local attachment, many of our communities are simply breaking down. The central state is usurping all sense of individual and collective responsibility.

Real decentralisation - can Whitehall let go?

The real question is: how can Whitehall really let go? How can this tide of centralisation be reversed? What we need is nothing short of a revolution in the way in which we think. But how can we achieve this? Today, I want to recommend four principles of decentralisation for England.

First, we need to decide who does what. What should Whitehall and Westminster do? And what should local councils do? There must be clear demarcation of responsibilities. Ministers should not answer in Parliament for issues delegated to local government. This would amount to a fundamental change to our constitution and the way Parliament works.

Second, we need create no new layers of government; no new banks of politicians. Take Cheshire, with 670,000 people. It is already larger than five US states. Or Lancashire, with 1.1 million people, larger than nine US states. Why do the great cities of Liverpool or Manchester need another layer of politicians when, by UK standards, they are very large entities? If we believe in local government, let's keep it local and avoid creating artificial regions which will in fact be larger than some European countries.

Of course there are issues which transcend individual councils, but local government can and does cooperate horizontally. There is no need for those issues to be grabbed by Whitehall.

Third, we must enable local councils to become less dependent upon central government grant and to raise more of what they spend in local taxation without increasing the overall tax burden on hard-pressed families. Only about a quarter of local councils' finances in this country are raised locally, compared with two-thirds in the US or France or Germany and over 80% in Switzerland, Sweden and Austria. However, you can only achieve this if you let go at least some of the equalisation agenda.

So fourth, we must embrace diversity and pursue not the equalisation of outcomes, but the maximisation of opportunities for all. The crushing drive for standardisation must cease. Innovation, efficiency and participation cannot flourish unless we let local disparities grow. Local authorities can be good at what they do. Bad ones can and do transform themselves into good ones.

As the Local Government Select Committee recently concluded, "If local Government is going to regain the public respect and authority it once enjoyed, the Government must be prepared to trust it more." Local government will only act responsibly if it is allowed to do so. We will only get more competent people in local government if they are trusted to make mistakes.

In a decentralised state, there certainly will be differences in the standard of services provided between districts and counties, but the average standard will surpass the very best that exists under the command state. There will be differences in the nature of services provided. But those services will be the ones that local people want, not the services demanded by central diktat.

The rebirth of local accountability should allow a rapid scaling down of the unnecessary and counterproductive top-down bureaucracy that has built up over the years. Social entrepreneurs should have the freedom to first manage, and then assume ownership of, under-used public sector assets such as community halls, parks or vacant land. Local people should be able to take direct control of those facilities or public spaces that affect their daily quality of life.


In conclusion, I will admit that some will choke to hear a Conservative saying all this, but do not underestimate the Conservative Party.

We have recognised that society has changed. Indeed - and this may strike you as a paradox - I believe my Party is the natural party of change. From Burke to Disraeli to Thatcher, Conservatives have understood the need to adapt. And that is why we believe in localism; in decentralisation and diversity; in letting local communities do their own thing. No one man, and certainly no one civil servant, knows the best answer to every problem. Society progresses by a thousand different experiments in a thousand different places. If we have the courage to accept that some experiments will fail, the overall standard will be immensely higher.

So far it is Labour that has claimed the language of decentralisation. However, the Conservatives could yet outflank them. We have the philosophy. All we need is the will to carry it through.

As Michael Howard has said, "no-one should be over-powerful. Not trade unions. Not corporations. Not the government. Not the European Union. Wherever we see bullying by the over-mighty, we will oppose it, and stand up for people's rights and freedoms." Our ambition is not bigger government but bigger people; people with the skills and character to stand on their own two feet; people caring for and supporting those around them. Conservatives want to support those institutions - many relational, small and local - far away from the interfering hands of the central state- that promote self-government and, therefore, civilisation. That means Whitehall must let go.

This debate is only just beginning. We have yet to develop a language that can communicate the terms of such a radical change in approach. It is no less than a call to denationalise local government."

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