Whatever you may think of the economic strategy being pursued by the Coalition Government, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that in some areas they are pursuing very sensible reforms. Over in the department for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles has already abolished the Comprehensive Area Assessment system of inspecting councils which has to be a good thing. Over recent years inspection has grown out of all proportion into an industry costing the taxpayer billions of pounds, and reining it back is long overdue.
He also appears to be a fan of David Milliband, who Whitehall watchers may remember had a short stint as Secretary of State in the same department. David came up with a policy of “double devolution”. Whilst he had moved on before anything could actually be done under this banner, the memory obviously lingers. Essentially his view was that power should be devolved from the centre to local government, so long as local government then instantly devolved it again, to citizens and communities. This appears to be a thread in the current localism thinking. It seems that in cases where cuts have to made, citizens are to be consulted, and may even be able to vote not to close a particular facility. Power indeed is to be devolved to the people.
In a recent speech in London Mr Pickles also promised that he would abolish one of the biggest blocks to local democracy- council tax capping. What he said was he would like to see it replaced by local referenda on tax levels, rather than a centrally imposed cap. One must agree that this is more democratic, but I suspect that the net effect will be the same since I cannot remember a case in history where people voted for increasing tax burdens. Let us hope though that initiatives surrounding referenda on service reductions combined with other referenda on tax levels are part of a thought through strategy or there could be trouble brewing.
There exists a good working model as to what happens when voters can vote on service levels and on tax levels; it is called the State of California, where the proposition system allows citizens to do just that. Essentially this system allows citizens to put questions concerning a range of issues, including tax rises and service levels, on a ballot paper where electors can then vote on these propositions. Unsurprisingly citizens have consistently supported low tax levels and high service standards. This practical example has been very democratic, but it is democracy at a high price. California now has debts of $63 billion (£41 billion) as a direct consequence of this process. I suspect Mr Osborne would be unimpressed if that were the consequence here!
Nevertheless the idea of consulting citizens and council employees at a time of cuts is a good one. No politician or professional manager should baulk at this idea. Over the years I have had a fair amount of involvement in local government consultations. If you are interested in some of the things I think I have learned, click here