Today, the Prime Minister took on the “pen-pushers and busybodies” whose red tape is threatening hundreds of Royal Wedding street parties up and down the country. In language rather untypical of a Prime Minister, particularly in recent years, he said:
“I hope people are able to join in and celebrate and I am very much saying today that if people want to have a street party, don’t listen to people who say “it is all bureaucracy and health and safety and you cant do it.” It is very important to understand if anyone wants to have a street party you don’t need a food license, you don’t need an entertainment license, you don’t need to have written documents about closing your street, you don’t have to pay for street closures, you don’t have to have special health and safety permission because there are councils out there telling you you do need these things – you don’t.”
Very nice of the Prime Minister to step in. But somehow I imagine few sighs of relief being breathed across the country, people giving up their fights with local councils and digging out their bunting.
The Prime Minister’s comments, right down to the old-school use of “busybodies” (the last person I think I heard use that phrase was a shopkeeper doling out half-penny sweets around the time of the last Royal Wedding in 1981), represented everything I think we should be cautious of with small ‘c’ conservatives. A tendency to hark back to a different age, a suspicion of progress and change, an assumption that 2011 will be like 1981 and that we still have the same sense of community that will see waving union jacks over trestle tables full of coronation chicken.
The Economist rightly highlighted a report by Co-operatives UK that revealed the British are half as neighbourly as they were when Charles and Diana married – judging by how well people know others in their street and how often they interact. We are a more fragmented – some might say broken – society compared with thirty years ago. If the street parties don’t emerge, it will be longer lasting social change that will be the reason – not council red tape, or even scepticism at the sight of another fairytale wedding after the last one went so wrong.
Perhaps we shouldn’t overanalyse. Mr Cameron’s remark was a throw-away line at a question and answer session, much like his throw-away remark in Islamabad last week that Britain had caused some of the worlds’ problems (shock, horror). Of course people should be able to have street parties if they want, and probably some councils are being a bit silly.
But it confirms something important about Mr Cameron’s conservatism. Something that was reflected in his previous speeches in which he launched all out attack on Britain’s health and safety culture. His attack on street parties was part of that attack on a regulation culture that he feels has got out of control.
It’s always likely to go down well. Everyone hates a jobsworth. And local councils often bear the brunt of that. But politicians like Mr Cameron should bear in mind that, until they change the system and devolve power to local authorities properly and give them the freedom to set their own budgets, policies and regulations, local authorities will always be hamstrung by centralised targets and centralised regulation. It’s the centre that regulates, not local authorities – so don’t shoot the messenger.
Attack the regulation fine, but don’t forget that it’s local councils who need to be liberated from that regulation as much as the local people they serve. A revolution is needed. But it needs to come from the top, and that doesn’t mean it needs to be “top-down”. Relax the centralising grip of Whitehall, and watch local authorities deliver better services.
Now that would be worth a street party.
Mike Dean blogs at http://pacman-minoritypolitics.blogspot.com/.