Peter Hoskin

Eric Pickles kickstarts the local blame game

Eric Pickles kickstarts the local blame game
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We've got lots of power – please take some. That's the central message of today's localism bill, and of Eric Pickles' article in the Telegraph to accompany it. Indeed, the government's 15-page document to explain the bill features the word "power" (in the context of shifting power away from the centre) over 50 times. Eight of those come in Nick Clegg's short, Lib Dem-friendly foreword.

The specifics of the bill are, on the whole, already familiar. It's all about elected mayors, local referendums and greater budgetary control for councils. But just because we've heard this drumbeat before, it doesn't make it any less radical. As the BBC's Mark Easton notes, some of the measures are utterly totemic. He describes a plan to give more fiscal autonomy to parish and ward-based councils as potentially "the biggest change to grass-roots politics in England since universal suffrage."

But, as any reader of Stan Lee knows, great power entails great responsibility – and this localism bill certainly involves great responsibilities for local authorities. They will be given more levers to operate, and at a time of significantly reduced central funding. Some will welcome this, glad to be free from the dead hand of Whitehall. Others will no doubt be terrified by it, sensing that the buck has been passed onto them for the decisions made – and the services delivered – during a time of fiscal restraint.

The upshot may well be a nationwide blame game: are bad services due to the cuts imposed from on high, or the actions of individual councils? Yet the government must be confident that it can win out in the end. All they really need, after all, is the example of one or two successful local authorities to embarrass the others into line.