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Cuts are being devolved, not power

2010 December 14
by Paul Vallely

The rhetoric has sounded attractive. Decision-making is to be passed down from central government to local people. Mechanisms will be created to allow the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard.  But the publication yesterday of the coalition government’s Localism Bill raises more questions than it affords answers. And it may be that affords is the key word here.

There are a number of potentially useful measures here. There is merit in the idea of giving community organisations the right to buy libraries, village halls, pubs and shops – and the time to raise the money to do that. And it would be good if local people had greater say in the running of care homes, children’s centres and bus services.

But the rest of the bill suggests that all this is so much window dressing. About 70 per cent of the budget of local councils comes from central government – and that is to be cut by an average 27 per cent over the next four years with the biggest cuts coming first. The claim that this can be achieved without hitting frontline services is either wishful thinking or political deceit. What is really being devolved to local councils is the opprobrium of making detailed cuts in public services. It is hard to disagree with the leader of Liverpool council who said that the bill would create a lot of new levers for local people but that nothing would happen when they pull them.

There are some deep incoherences at the heart of the plan. Government wants power devolved and yet it wants planning, education or even chief executives – shared between local authorities.  Even if that does not create super-councils, as critics fear, it certainly takes decisions further from, rather than closer to, the ordinary citizen. The fabled Big Society seems to be putting some of its bigness in the wrong places.

Those cuts that have already taken place have shown that charities and community groups – which David Cameron wants to take over some functions from local councils – are losing much of their funding, since they overwhelmingly rely on council grants which are proving among the first thing to be axed. Volunteers may work for nothing but the support systems they need cost money. When that is being cut no amount of political hyperbole will cover the truth.

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