How Centralised Control Is Killing Local Innovation
Over the past 30+ years, successive governments have progressively emasculated the powers and reduced the autonomy of local authorities and their ability to tailor policies to local circumstances almost to vanishing point.
It is plain that central government now views local authorities solely as its robotic creatures, whose primary function is to deliver centrally prescribed policies, especially the less popular ones.
Perhaps this is related to the concomitant process whereby central government has ceded some of its own powers to Brussels during roughly the same time frame and has subsequently compensated. (Ironic that, given that Britain is a signatory to the Maastricht Treaty, containing a supposedly firm commitment to subsidiarity.)
We are told the coalition government is committed to transferring powers and duties back to local authorities via its Localism Bill and other measures. I'll believe it when it happens. Past governments have repeatedly voiced similar rhetoric quickly followed by the opposite happening.
Those active in local government during this 30 year period will know how crass this policy shift has been. History shows us, firstly, that since Victorian times local government was the great innovator time and again, finding new and more effective ways of improving the lives of those it serves and investing accordingly, using both national government resources and its own. Indeed it is arguable that increasingly restricting the ability of local authorities to independently raise and manage their financial resources was the main means whereby national government hobbled local government. Thanks again Militant.
Secondly, many central government "initiatives" consisting of little more than a snappy title and a minuscule skeleton outline perennially required local government - without ever getting much, if any credit for it - to put flesh on those bare bones and show / tell central government how to actually achieve what it wanted to achieve, although experience indicates that the more successful such initiatives were, the less likely that continuing funding would subsequently be made available from Whitehall.
The current ongoing cuts to council budgets (which would have happened to a comparable degree regardless of whoever had formed the government post May 2010) will, in line with the law of unintended consequences, have some unanticipated effects. One is that central "initiatives" as seen in the past will gradually disappear not just because of financial constraints per se but also because the capacity to develop those projects will no longer exist within local authorities, or indeed within partner agencies and hardly ever existed in Whitehall anyway.
In addition, the burgeoning culture of risk management will guarantee that even if elected members are minded to try something innovative and by some minor miracle actually identify the resources to do so, they will almost invariably be stymied by the ingrained risk aversion which always seems to channel officers away from showing any enthusiasm whatsoever for doing anything in ways remotely different from the usual day to day past business practices of the authority.
Ironically therefore, at a time when unprecedented major savings have to be made and quickly, one of the traditionally effective ways in which those savings might have been realised - changing the organisational culture by taking a chance of doing things in innovative, more efficient means - will be denied to elected members. You couldn't make it up.