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David Cameron: Time to transfer power from the central state to local people

At the start of the year, I set out our vision for Britain's economy.

Our plan is for an economy where government and citizens can live within their means and everyone has the chance to own their own home.

An economy that's better balanced, more productive and more modern.

An economy that's more green, more local, more family-friendly.

Today, with the publication of our consultation document on decentralisation, we're addressing the 'local' part of that vision.

Decentralising power is one of the big changes a Conservative Government will make.

Tony Benn once spoke about wanting a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people.

Well, I want a fundamental shift of power and wealth to local people and local institutions, and today's green paper is an important step down that road.


Over the last century, Britain has become one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. 

And over the last decade, under Labour, this trend has massively accelerated.

Since 1997, central government has given itself extra powers over transport, culture, sport, planning and house building, social housing and environmental management powers which used to be under local democratic control.

So now, local authorities simply can't do what people expect them to do.

They can't decide how many houses are going to be built in their area.

They can't lower their business rates to encourage economic growth and even if they could they wouldn't be able to reap the benefits of that growth.

But at the same time as taking democratic powers off local councils Labour has placed a whole pile of bureaucratic burdens on them.

Labour clogged up local government with a mind-boggling 1,200 centrally imposed targets.

And on top of that they now have to contend with a whole new layer of government through regionalisation - which is just centralisation by another a name.

So where we once had local discretion, we now have Regional Empowerment Consortia, Regional Equality and Diversity Partnerships, and even Regional Tobacco Control Managers.

And at the apex of all this regional bureaucracy, Regional Assemblies that no-one wants and no-one ever voted for.


Sceptics say: "Does it really matter?"

"Isn't politics just about what works, not who pulls the levers?"

But I believe there is a connection between the two.

Between who's making the decision and what works.

Let me take you on a walk through my constituency in West Oxfordshire.

There's the excellent comprehensive where parents, teachers and councillors have wanted a 6th form college for decades but the bureaucracy won't let them have it.

There's the police in a bustling market town who want to concentrate on anti-social behaviour and low-level violence but are constantly being told by the Home Office to meet a set of a targets that has little to do with local circumstances.

The central state, acting through its centralised government departments and agencies, doesn't have the imagination and flexibility to tailor its services to people's needs.

If we had more local discretion if we allowed more decisions to be made at the local level and more money to be spent at the local level then we'd have better outcomes and more things that actually work.

That's what this green paper is all about.

Decentralisation isn't just some theory - it really matters.

It matters to our economy, our politics and our society.

If our economy was less centralised and less unbalanced instead of suffering an internal economic crisis, we would be better able to respond to the global one and help mend our broken economy.

If people really thought a local vote would make a difference to the level of their council tax or the crime on their streets then they might actually take the time to vote on election day and help mend our broken politics.

And if people were given more responsibility, guess what - they'd take it - and that rise in personal responsibility would help mend our broken society.

Civic life in France has been transformed by the power given to communes where, on average, decisions are made on behalf of just sixteen-hundred people.

We don't go as far as that in this document today.

But I want to see what people's reactions are to the proposals we're setting out and if there is an appetite for further, more radical decentralisation then we will certainly consider that carefully.


Today, we're proposing a number of specific steps down the road towards a more decentralised country.

More city mayors to give strong leadership and energised local politics in cities like Coventry, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

I'm delighted to say that Michael Heseltine will be helping us to define the powers of these city mayors and to look at how we can give more of the money currently spent by quangos to them, so that they can fulfil their visions for their cities.

We also want more power for local people to make change happen - through the right to hold a local referendum if enough people want one on a given issue.

And more power for local councils to do what local people want them to do so instead of only being able to act on something if they have a specific mandate to do so, as is the case now councils would have a "general power of competence", freeing them to sort out local problems, rather than just say "I can't".

We would strip the unaccountable Regional Development Agencies of their powers over planning and housing and give them to local, democratically accountable councils so they can play their part in fighting the recession and building the recovery - but in a way that makes sense for the local area.

We will give local people control over local policing, through elected police commissioners.

And we will replace centralised bureaucratic control over council tax, through central government capping with localised democratic control, through local referenda if a council plans an excessive rise.

So these are just some of the first steps down the road towards a more decentralised country.

A good benchmark for decentralisation in the coming years is whether people will start talking about their local government, or their mayor, as providing the answers to their problems rather than just blaming "the government" for everything that happens locally.

Will more people try and make a difference in local politics, knowing that they really can change things for the better?

Or will they continue with our current resigned apathy in the face of a multitude of detached regional bodies and quangos?

If we truly empowered local politics, we'd see more national political leaders emerging from this background.

In America, in many European countries the path from state governor to President, or town or city mayor to Prime Minister is well trodden. 

Here it is extremely rare.  Why? 


Decentralisation, devolution and empowerment should be a natural Conservative approach.

We've always believed in people owning their own homes, buying shares in businesses - having more control over their lives.

It's what we're about.

We're not control freaks, we're enablers.

Decentralisation is an absolutely essential component of our progressive Conservative philosophy.

Instead of some ruling class making decisions about everyone else, we believe in everyone taking responsibility for shaping their lives, their families and their neighbourhoods

And decentralisation is an essential part of our move to a post-bureaucratic age, where power and responsibility are in the hands of the people, not the politicians or the bureaucrats.

I strongly believe that our vision of an empowering state rather than the current reality of an overpowering state offers the path to the good society and the good life we all seek.

So the next election won't just be about whether to transfer power from Labour to the Conservatives.

It will also be about whether to transfer power from the central state to local people and local institutions.

Neither transfer can come soon enough.

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