Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Libby Purves sings a liberal song (though sadly it’s not The Land)

Regular listeners to Midweek on Radio 4 will know better than I whether Libby Purves is a liberal-minded soul (it is possible to be a journalist and still have one!), but her column in The Times, today, is certainly singing a Liberal Democrat song.

Admitting the impossibility of achieving true equity of public services across the entire UK or even one of its constituent nations, she cries out for a greater devolution of powers, a renewed localism. She even calls for a local income tax. I’m beginning to suspect we have a fan.

“[D]evolve more!” she cries. “Bin the council tax, which hits people who
can’t help that the local property market made their little house technically a
treasure, and now penalises those who build conservatories with their own taxed
income. Have local income taxes instead (adjusted to help genuinely poor
regions). Give money and power to local assemblies and local referendums;
reserve to Westminster and Brussels only the most solemn powers of justice,
defence and security. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let some of them be
prettier. Then the people who get the worst flowers can challenge local leaders,
locally, and sack them briskly when they fail.

It might even make us feel more of a United Kingdom. Look at the freedom of
US states and mayors: that doesn’t make them feel less American. More so, if
anything, because in freedom there is pride.”

Vote Purves, I find myself crying. Purves for president!

Well, not for president – the notion causes a shudder down my spine. And she’d need to stand on a Liberal Democrat ticket. But the general sentiment is largely correct. I would reserve justice, defence and security solely to London; Brussels should be restricted to the single market, competition law and environmental issues that overlap national boundaries. The economy, too, cannot be devolved. But health services? Education? Minimum wage law? Taxation? – not just how much, but how! If Kent wants to adopt site value rating while Sussex keeps the Council Tax and Essex opts for a local income tax, let them do so, and let the best man win. If Yorkshire wants to adopt a lower minimum wage than Warwickshire, good luck to it; the cost of living is lower, anyway, and they will attract businesses ready to put their unemployed to work.

Britain, and certainly England, is among the most centralised states in Europe. Yet there is no particular advantage to that centralisation. Economies of scale only really operate in agriculture and manufacturing; service industries exploit niches, which is why there are local financial advisers but not local chemical works, and why GPs have not been replaced by hospitals. Most English counties are more populous than American states such as Alaska (less populous than Gloucestershire) or nation states such as Malta (on a par with Dorset) or Luxembourg (smaller than Buckinghamshire). Yet they are quite capable of running their own health and education services. While some local authorities would need to pool their resources tiny (Scilly has less than 3,000 residents), it is worth noting that only one of the nine English regions has a population smaller than Denmark.

I would also oppose the fad for unitary authorities (popular with some Liberal Democrats). As America and France demonstrate, many powers could be devolved further still, to boroughs, parishes and even wards. Locally elected Mayors of communes and district attorneys, with real power and real budgets, would do more to re-engage the population with elections than a dozen email and postal voting pilots and a hundred get out the vote campaigns. If we are truly liberal we need to trust the people, and where they need to act collectively we need to trust them to do so locally.

I look to a future where ministers refuse to answer questions on the lack of dentists in Newcastle or school admissions in Brighton with the phrase “That is a matter for the member’s local authority and I suggest he takes it up with his colleague in the local council”. The government may be beyond our reach but we can hold local officials to account. With more power over local issues, councillors will have more responsibility, and with more responsibility for influencing our neighbourhoods, we will all have more power.

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