Simon Jenkins

People power

Simon Jenkins on why the Tory party should campaign to restore power to local communities

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The rebuilt town hall of the ancient Borough of Henley still stands brave over its market place. This was Henley’s forum and seat of government, a one-stop shop of civic welfare. From here Henley’s streets were lit, paved and policed, Henley’s traders regulated, Henley’s children educated and its poor relieved, all under the aegis of Henley people.

Anywhere abroad this would still be the case. In France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and throughout America municipalities the size of Henley continue to exercise such power. Town halls and mairies remain centres of local politics and administration and their people like it that way. Yet in England such buildings are empty shells, as if hit by a neutron bomb denuding them of people and power. Henley is administered by a district council randomly located upstream in Wallingford, plus a county council in Oxford, a region in Guildford and mostly a ministry in London. Suggest to local citizens that Henley might regain its old privileges and they would equate it with feudal scottage and the ducking stool.

In October 1986 the then Tory government staged a bold overnight reform. It obliterated the restrictive practices of the City of London and threw Britain’s financial services open to allcomers. The so-called Big Bang was widely predicted as a catastrophe. Yet it transformed Britain from a declining backwater of European finance into a surging champion. Political imagination and a dose of guts yielded a stunning success.

The Conservatives should plan a similar Big Bang for local democracy*. Like its predecessor, this should be a major event, a Freedom Day for local liberty. It should see a nationwide ‘bonfire of controls’, as the Tories produced to widespread delight in 1951. Millions of buff envelopes should go up in flames and bureaucrats be subjected to auto da fé.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the party turned its back on local democracy, hoping to rule for ever on charismatic central leadership. It removed power and fiscal discretion from tens of thousands of Conservative councillors, snapping the contract between the party nationally and its supporters. This was a tacit barter of local power for activism at general election time. Councillors were now told they were no longer to be trusted with the nation’s schools, houses, transport or health, as they were across Europe. In city, county and suburb, the party’s little platoons duly packed their bags and went home. The Tory party disembowelled itself and is still bleeding. In 20 years it has lost a million members.

The lesson the Tories should learn from George Bush’s victory in America has nothing to do with security or the ‘values agenda’. It is that elections are won by avid party workers getting out the vote. There is no short cut to this, via television or computers. No party can win an election without a highly motivated infantry. The Conservatives demotivated theirs. New recruits will want to know what the party has to offer them in their own back yards. They will want power.

The New Localism which spread across Europe in the 1980s and 1990s was no gimmick. It led to constitutional change in France in 1982, Sweden in 1984, Italy in 1993, Spain in 1997. All involved real devolution, transferring taxing and spending to provincial and local councils and mayors. A people fed up with overcentralised government demanded reform and got it. France’s communes plan their environs and maintain their primary schools. Germany’s ‘L