Opinion: Labour miss the point on communities

I spent last week in Westminster, where in the Lords we spent Thursday afternoon debating the Government’s recently published “Action Plan for Community Empowerment”.

It’s hard to know which pair of words is the more depressing “Action Plan” or “Community Empowerment” Their Lordships certainly failed to be either empowered or active. Apart from the mover – my noble Friend Lord Greaves – and the front benches, there were 2 backbench speakers plus one Bishop making his Maiden speech on the subject. There were twice as many speakers for today’s other two debates, on China and on missile defence.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful to Tony for tabling the debate, and drawing the attention of the House to another piece of well meaning central government guidance which totally misses the point. I know Tony isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I believe we all owe him a debt of gratitude for developing the style of community politics which remains the basis not only of our own campaigning, but which has been copied by the other parties, sometimes to our detriment.

This so-called Action Plan shows many of the New Labour traits to which we’ve become accustomed.

It’s top-down, showing a certainty that communities (whatever and wherever they might be) must be empowered whether they want to be or not and that empowerment is a sort of gift which can be bestowed from above on to the grateful recipients. It’s an impossible task to convince this government that communities are not nice, neat definable things which respond to government patronage. People will exercise their right to express views which don’t accord with Government or council policy, on topics where Government would rather they didn’t, and most of the time won’t want to get involved at all.

It seems to have escaped government that years of policies which simultaneously move power and resources from local government to quangos and Whitehall has meant that communities often have no idea to whom they should be talking. In this country, towns of any size will receive public services and funding from literally hundreds of organisations in a maze of acronyms which change constantly due to Government’s mania for re-organisation. And when they have managed to establish exactly who is responsible, they are told there isn’t the funding, it doesn’t match some target or priority set by government, or they are specifically barred from doing something by legislation.

There is a lot of evidence to show how the paraphernalia of consultation, focus group, complaints and feedback has not been used by public bodies to improve or change their services or the way in which they are delivered. All too often these things happen because government has said they should, and the box must be ticked. How can we expect more people to get involved when it is clear to them that their involvement won’t make a jot of difference?

People will get involved if they really care about something, and if they think that by getting involved they can make a difference. For that to happen what’s needed isn’t more central government guidance, but genuine local autonomy.

Baroness Ros Scott is a Lib Dem peer who speaks for the party on Local Government in the Lords.

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3 Comments

  • Martin Land 13th Jan '08 - 4:58pm

    Ros, the role of the last two governments in local governance has been truly terrible. The worse for having constantly been couched in language designed to try to make people think that they really had our interests at heart.
    The emasculation of local government is something that goes back to Maggies early years; in other words, more than 25 years. This government, Labour by name, Tory by nature, has not only continued to reduce powers but also to create a burden of standards, tables and controls which have made the task of providing local government which is in touch with the community nigh on impossible. Local Councillors are increasingly disillusioned with their role and the advent of substantial councillors allowances has created a new role – the professional councillor. This new animal appears in three different colours, Red, Blue and Orange, and is unattractive in all of them.
    With all parties finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates to fulfil a role which has less and less credibility and prestige within the community, a question comes to the forefront. The question: Is it too late to save local government?

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