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Friday, February 13, 2004

THREE CHEERS FOR CENTRAL GOVERNMENT . . .NOT In the current Spectator Edward Heathcoat Amory rails against local government and offers a superficially semi-plausible defence of Whitehall centralism:

There is no evidence that devolving power to a local level would be either more democratic or more effective. At best, it would waste a great deal of our money. At worst, it would hand power to the worst kind of political extremists.
So we should reject decentralisation as a dangerous pipe dream. Instead, it's time to be unfashionable, to stand up for the centre, for Sir Humphrey, for Whitehall over the rest. With a few caveats, of course.

What caveats are they? What problem does he have with local democracy? He nails one point, though:

But these new assemblies, far from devolving power, are actually an exercise in regaining it for the bureaucrats. Local councils will lose much of their control over planning issues and other matters to the new regional bodies. Worse, unable to raise money themselves, they will be able to spend it - £1.7 billion a year for the three. Representation without taxation is a recipe for disaster.

But that's surely a critique of the specific means not the general idea of stronger local government, no?

Once again, they would be spending central government money but making decisions locally. They would certainly blame their failures on a lack of cash from the centre while Whitehall complained about local management. Voters would find that the buck stopped nowhere.

Well, I don't know about other local government advocates, but the way I see it, local government must also raise the tax money it wants to spend itself. That way the buck would stop very quickly and we could all very easily see where and how the money is spent.

But there is also a serious practical problem. There is simply not enough management talent to go round at local level.

Now this is absolute nonsense. Heathcoat Armory estimates we'd need about 500 chief executives to run local government. 500. That's it. How many people graduate each year from our universities with degrees in management, business studies and economics, not to mention sociology, politics, history or similar subjects that at least give a fairly good idea of political management? From these tens of thousands annually and those millions already with the relevant qualifications we cannot possible hope to find a mere 500 to professionally run our local councils? That is manifestly rubbish. So what does Heathcoat Armory suggest?

The answer is not to devolve power to new layers of government, but to hand it directly to the people; and the only effective way yet devised to do that is through the market.

He makes the first and obvious counter argument himself:

Of course, the private sector can't do everything.

So what’s to be done?

What we can't privatise we should centralise.

In the brilliant fashion we have already, presumably. There is nothing here that seriously suggests to me that I should rethink my advocacy of local government. If this is the best the centralists can do I don't think they've got much of a faint hope of going anywhere sensible.
On the other hand, let me clarify one thing: I am in favour of local government, not regional government.
Simply remember: ninety percent of politics is local, so ninety percent of government must be local too.

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