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June 15, 2011

Can you want what you don’t want

It was a pollster who first coined the phrase cognitive polyphasia – the observation that we are all capable of holding several entirely contradictory beliefs at once.  Writing in the Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee explains why this idea applies to our current fascination with localism and why we should step back and take a long hard look at what is being proposed

Polly Toynbee, Guardian

‘Let local people decide!’ sounds fine in rhetoric but reeks in reality. The consequence is services sold out or gone forever.

Here is a great example of what pollsters call the public’s “cognitive polyphasia”. In plain language it means we want impossibly contradictory things. As the localism bill returns to the Commons for report stage today, the government should be warned that while people love the Ambridge sound of localism, they deplore the postcode lottery it brings.

Brave would be the politician these days who refused to pay lip service to the localist idea: who could be against local people taking making local choices, until you ask what and how? Labour in power was utterly conflicted, pouring out initiatives for community action while raining down centralised diktats.

Now here comes Eric Pickles, not conflicted but deceiving. Tory devolution hands down responsibility for failing to finance local services, devolving the blame for cuts. His bill squares the problem: if the money doesn’t cover all that councils are obliged to do, this bill gives him the power to revoke any inconvenient duty on councils. Parliament has painstakingly passed laws obliging councils to do things we regard as essential to civilisation, but this gives ministers Henry VIII powers to strike any of them out at a stroke.

There may be daft regulations on the statute book, but this includes everything from the duty to protect children at risk to providing libraries, free parking for the disabled or enforcing food safety laws – all lumped together as “burdens” that ministers could scrap without further debate. From protecting ancient monuments, wildlife and hedgerows to the mental health act, child poverty act, homelessness act, adoption and children act, the chronically sick and disabled act – hundreds of laws will become open to summary removal.

Labour has no chance of winning its Commons amendment to stop this legislative vandalism, but the Lords may yet rebel. If you find it hard to believe how much of the fabric of social protection could be snuffed out at the whim of ministers, pause to scrutinise the official list of “burdens”, listed on the Communities and Local Government website..

This act is a powerful mechanism for shrinking government, amid Pickles’ ritual abuse of “bureaucrats” and “town hall busybodies”. Let local people decide! Let them vote for councils that provide whatever services they want.

That sounds fine in rhetoric but reeks in reality. Recent local elections show that council elections are mainly a barometer of national, not local, politics. If people rarely vote on local issues, they certainly don’t get much involved: Ipsos Mori finds one in five people claim they might get involved – but only 2% do, no change, despite years of Labour’s community efforts by Hazel Blears and others. Of course participation could and should be better, but people know well that most funds – and most cuts – come from Westminster, where blame usually lies for shortfalls in local services. Pickles stopped reform of council tax and George Osborne capped it, while the Lib Dems gave up on local income tax.

In polls people say they want services to be fair. Equality always trumps local autonomy. Mori’s Ben Page says “Fairness is a strong British value. They say state provision should be the same everywhere – and the buck always stops at the top with ministers.” How extreme is their wish for equal services? Mori found 91% thought the grass in public parks should be cut with equal regularity everywhere. This country thinks nationally when it comes to rights to services. Unpicking all those laws that protect the weak and ensure citizens can trust the food they eat, the water they drink and the air they breathe goes against the grain in a country where these are part of the natural history of social progress. Francis Maude says centralism never did away with local variation, but just see how extreme his postcode lottery becomes.

Remember all this happens while the government massively redistributes council funds from poorer to richer areas. The cuts hit the poorest councils hardest – Liverpool worst – and the richest like Dorset are barely touched. Pickles’ plan to let councils keep their business rates will make the rich very much richer at the expense of poor areas. Currently business rates are centrally collected and handed out according to need. Once keeping their own business taxes, the City of London gains £517m, Westminster and Chelsea gain £1.6m each while the great losers are Birmingham, cut by £175m, Hackney by £116m and Liverpool by another £104m. When the government lets councils decide how much – if any – council tax credit to pay poorer households, what will rich areas do? Without geographical sharing we stop being a nation in any meaningful sense. But that is the logic of localism: the little platoons all thriving or struggling on their own.

There is more danger in this bill: Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, also worries the bill will be a charter for the planning corruption it took so long to stamp out. Developers can get up a small local group to front their plan, with unseen backhanders. Meanwhile the bill lets nimbys stop plans for necessary social housing or unpopular services on their doorsteps.

There is more: any small group can call for public services to be put out to tender. Naturally, this is dressed up in “big society” disguise, promising local people can run their community centre or take over their library and leisure centre. The reality is that the door to everything is being opened to “any willing provider”, as David Cameron revealed in a recent speech.

Yesterday the head of Capita, the outsourcing company, told the Financial Times he had been assured by Francis Maude that the “big society” would not get in the way of large firms taking the lion’s share of contracts. Eyeing one giant £2.6bn contract, he came away saying: “There is absolutely no way on the planet that is going to be let to a charity or a small- or medium-sized enterprise … the voluntary sector will not be a massive player as they simply don’t have the scale and can’t bear the risk.” Exactly that happened with the Department for Work and Pensions DWP welfare to work contracts: 38 of the 40 contracts went to a handful of big firms with success records worse than the jobcentres.

So much is being torn up in a whirlwind, with uprooted services outsourced or gone forever. This government is making sure it leaves behind ineradicable change. As Margaret Thatcher disposed of utilities, David Cameron is disposing of the state.