Here’s the headline on a recent release from the Daycare Trust.
“Will government plans end the childcare lottery and give every
child a Sure Start?”
For “childcare” you could substitute child protection or cancer
care or even secondary education. The point would be the same.
Professionals and interest groups and, until recently, the
government opposed local variation in the provision of public
services. And so should everyone concerned with greater equality:
why should location determine life chances?
But now the phrase to drop in ministerial suites is “the new
localism”. In announcing his foundation hospitals health secretary
Alan Milburn was full of it. The prime minister thinks that Labour
needs to recover its early tradition of mutualism and devolution.
Even Gordon Brown, in announcing a slight loosening of the reins on
council borrowing, extols “flexibility”.
The centre suppresses innovation, creativity and diversity. People
in Whitehall don’t know best. Targets hamstring local managers.
Councillors are forced to sing from a central songsheet. But hang
on. Don’t we need a strong centre? There are two good reasons why
we do. One is money. Since the mid 19th-century citizens have
resisted local taxation, preferring central government to raise the
revenue needed for public services.
The greatest paradox of the Thatcher years was her determination to
protect local residents which led to the poll tax while increasing
the overall tax burden.
Because we in Britain are so resistant to local taxes, the centre
alone can raise the money. And that gives the centre an opportunity
to spread it fairly, recognising differences in socio-economic
The “new localism” implies Hackney and Halton should pay for their
own services from their own revenues, which is a recipe for huge
inequality. Milburn’s foundation hospitals, similarly, stand to get
more money; the district general hospital gets less.
The second reason is the one we started with. Professional social
and public services are inherently national. Trained staff see
their careers in terms much wider than a single district or region.
Professionals are not always right, of course, but regulating them
is a job for strong central government. New localism has nothing to
offer the rundown estate where GPs won’t set up or the district
which cannot attract social workers. Centralism, perturbed by
unfair differences in access to services, has.
David Walker writes for The Guardian.