The meaning of localism, and how to make things work
Speech to Liberal Democrat conference, Blackpool, September 2005
I had the misfortune a few weeks back to move from Liberal Democrat Lambeth to Labour Croydon.
The weather’s not as good there, and their recycling is also what you might call rubbish.
In Lambeth you can recycle almost anything. You can reduce your contribution to landfill to one small bag a week.
In Croydon, they deign to collect one box of paper and glass from you once a fortnight.
Why don’t they collect plastic, like Lambeth? Because government targets are specified in weight, and plastic is just bulky.
I ask you, can local government be any more craven, unimaginative and pathetic than that?
They don’t care about the landfill. They just care about the targets, plucked from the air by some arrogant minister of the crown.
But it isn’t just that. A century ago, Londoners elected twelve thousand councillors to run their local services.
Now there are nearly the same number taking decisions on our behalf. The trouble is - only 2,000 of them are actually elected.
The rest have been replaced by 10,000 appointees, the creatures of Whitehall. To boards and quangos, running everything from transport to health.
Across the country, elected councillors are now outnumbered three times over by a quangocracy of 60,000.
Through them, Whitehall controls almost every detail of our lives, with stultifying targets.
Many of them just because they are easy to measure. Often conflicting.
Backed by batteries of cappings, ring-fencings, inspectors and all the panoply of empire.
We have fought this every inch of the way. But we sometimes assume it’s a slightly abstruse issue of democracy, of interest to a few Lib Dem academics.
What our consultative document says is that, actually, this goes to the heart of the impoverishment of local life. The impotence of government. The intractability of public services.
Because ministers are also encouraging the centralisation of big charities, of big business, of giant inhuman institutions, of ruinous health and safety regimes.
That’s why our high streets are becoming identikit clones or abandoned deserts.
Why decisions about what we can buy are taken by a narrowing coterie of Tesco executives.
But most of all it’s why, despite all the extra money, public services are still failing.
Because locally controlled services work, and centrally controlled ones don’t.
Because what makes schools and hospitals effective is relationships. Between teachers and pupils, doctors and patients.
When frontline staff use their experience and skills, they work wonders. When they don’t, no central government initiative can make a difference. When they shrink to mere target watchers in Gordon Brown’s machine, they fail.
That’s why you get bureaucratic inertia. Why one in ten hospital patients are harmed by their treatment. Why train journey times get slower every year. Why it’s so hard to get a place in your local school.
It’s not just the money. Taken together, public sector sclerosis and private sector monopolies are emptying our institutions of meaning.
Destroying our way of life as tangibly as terrorists.
Rotting local imagination, innovation and pride.
And this party is called now by history to throw this process into reverse.
And to do so for the sake of public services. Because otherwise nothing works.