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Are you local?

The unbearable excitement of local council elections is upon us. While you're hanging the local-council bunting and moving the furniture outside for next week's local-council street parties, you might like to meditate on these examples of the coalition's dedication to “localism”.

1. Council tax benefit

The Tory former leader of the Commons, Lord Newton of Braintree, died recently. This was no surprise to anyone who had seen him in the previous months as his health and his lungs visibly failed, he became increasingly frail and he was reliant on an oxygen tank that he would take breaths from just outside the Chamber. Incredibly and admirably, however, he continued to attend proceedings in the Lords until a few days before his death and never shrank from taking on his own government when he thought they were wrong, and one area where he thought they were deluded was their changes to council tax benefit.

Lord Newton of Braintree: We are being told... that every local authority in the country is going to have to invent its own social security system. That is what we are talking about. Unless they get together in Essex or wherever it may be, then Braintree will have its own social security system, as will Chelmsford and Norwich. How much is that going to cost? “Is it sane?”, I ask, and hope for an answer...

Someone referred to factory closures. I had a lot of them in Braintree in the early 1980s. Courtaulds was one of the biggest local employers in the textile industry. It did me a lot of political damage but, leaving that aside, obviously it sent up the number of people on benefits, including whatever council tax benefit was in those days. The same thing will probably happen up in Fylde due to British Aerospace's intention to close its factories. However, there may be places where great new factories are being built. Is this going to bring windfall benefits? If there is a factory closure, [because the council tax benefit is capped] everyone else in the area on council tax benefit has to have their benefit cut to pay for the new arrivals on to the benefit. If a factory opens or Tesco takes on 400 people, either the council or every council tax benefit beneficiary gets a bonus. These questions need thinking through and need answers. [Hansard]
The answer took the form of a characteristically sour grin from Lord Freud and platitudes about impact assessments, but Lord Newton's basic point remained unanswered because it's entirely true. The coalition is introducing a “system” of every local authority running its own social security system with capped amounts of money—something that was tried for a few years towards the end of the 1930s and, predictably, led to the chaos that convinced people of the need for a national system in the first place.

2. Regional pay rates

It's a popular accusation among the usual critics of bold Tory reforms that marketisation always means a race to the bottom, so that privatising NHS services naturally means pay will be reduced to match the bare minimum that the private sector is prepared to offer. This criticism is, as ever, ill informed and Trotsykite. It's well known that the promise of even lower pay is exactly the sort of incentive that already low-paid workers need to stay in a given area; so well known, in fact, that the government don't even need to consult on it. And there's no escaping the harsh fact that the coalition is bravely facing up to: sick northerners are simply worth less than sick southerners.

3. EU fines

The government are actively pursuing the idea of passing on fines for contravening EU air quality directives to local authorities. That is, if pollution in one area of the country breaches EU levels, the authority in that specific area alone will be liable for the whole fine. I have to thank whichever wonk concocted this particular aspect of the wholesale abandonment of central government responsibility, as it has provided a rare glimmer of light relief in what has otherwise been an unrelenting torrent of shit. Too much pollution in, say, Lancashire and, instead of helping out, the government merely hand over the bill? Simple! Use some massive wind turbines to waft it over to Yorkshire. Yorkshire in turn might use its massive wind turbines to retaliate or waft the offending air onwards somewhere else, which in turn will have its own massive wind turbines, but whatever happens it will mean a boost for the ailing massive wind turbine industry.

4. Local elected police and crime commissioners

Katie Price intends to put herself forward as a candidate.

The race to delegate all responsibility is mainly so that central government can escape the blame for the car crashes they know are coming—after all, most austerity cuts still have yet to be brought in. It also fits with the libertarian position that all government is terrible and inept[1], but it's an extreme reading of that position to claim that that should extend to even the most basic co-ordination of administration. Local social security! Local air quality! Local currency! Local prices! Local postage rates! Hey, why have you closed my village post office? If you voted for a member of this government and you ever use the term “postcode lottery” to describe anything other than Richard Desmond's flagrant scam, new regulations brought in this year state that you can legally be killed where you stand.

[1] You might be tempted to assume that this ideology would explain some of the worst excesses of howling, blistering incompetence that this regime continues to display, but come on, look at these people—they're really not doing it deliberately.

Image © David Medcalf and tampered with under Creative Commons licence.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2012 10:27 am (UTC)
If you look to our trans-Atlantic cousins' example, I think Libertarianism does plausibly explain what's going on; pace Grover Norquist's quip about starving government until it was weak enough to drown in a bath-tub, the best recruiting sergeant for libertarianism is a demonstration that government is always incompetent, so by deliberately hamstringing the beast, more libertarians can be made. It's all somewhat redolent of Mao's strategy of insurgency and I suspect that, as with the anti-abortion demonstrations we've been seeing of late, the strings are being pulled from far to the west of Westminster.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
Strictly-speaking libertarianism is anti-authoritarianism in general, not exclusively anti-government. The problem with people using the American definition is that you end up with absurd situations like people saying they're "libertarian" because they want to pay less taxes and hate speed cameras even though they bully their partners and rule their families with a rod of iron.

What the Americans call "libertarianism" should more correctly be called anti-statism or, in certain less ideological cases, classical liberalism.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 03:04 pm (UTC)
Incidentally, I wouldn't make the mistake of thinking the current lot are anti-statist as some kind of ideological constant. Specifically, I think, they feel the state has no business in the provision of services because this can, theoretically, be provided by private companies and corporations who will do it better/cheaper; as far as they're concerned the state is for law-enforcement, defence, and general governance and legislation.

Putting my pragmatist's hat on for a moment (it's a bit dusty) I can understand, if not sympathise, with this point of view. After all government provision of services can be inefficient and rather presumptuous towards the people who pay for it. The problem, in my experience, is that in too many cases there's a natural monopoly meaning that rather than a market forming the government simply sells a contract onto a single company who do as bad/good job as the old state-owned lot.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
Surely this whole public vs private provision thing is asking the wrong question. There are examples of good and bad in both. My working assumption would be that success is more down to leadership, morale and a clear set of goals than where the money comes from.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 04:23 pm (UTC)
That's basically my position too, I've come across both excellent and dreadful service from both the public and private sectors. Unfortunately, a lot of people are stuck in the mindset that one is "good" and the other is "bad" when it comes to the provision of services and that gives them huge blind spots.

What we really need to focus on is who does things well and why they do them well.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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