The UK is the most centralised state in the developed world.
Sarah Hayward is leader of Camden Council
The UK is the most centralised state in the developed world. More power rests in a few hands in Westminster than in any other comparable country.
This massive concentration of power is inefficient and undemocratic. But most importantly it can often stymie the delivery of public services that effectively meet the needs of communities and individuals who often rely on them.
You can see why national politicians have felt like they want to try to control all the levers. But both the fiscal challenge we face and the pressures on public services are now so great it’s now time to think completely differently about the relationship between national and local government and national and local communities.
It’s time to try to win power to give it away.
If more power rests in the hands of councils and communities you will see better, more responsive services that deliver better outcomes. They’ll probably be cheaper too.
Leading a council area in north London I see all sorts of inefficiency and barriers to good public services because often the public sector organisations all point upwards to Whitehall rather than working together to find solutions to local issues.
If councils had proper control of both the skills budget and the social security budget in our area we’d be able to respond to both the local economy and local community much more effectively. Matching training opportunities with the local economy and helping support businesses to grow to employ more people.
It’s a nonsense to try to do all of this from Whitehall when every local economy is different.
Often communities get really frustrated about their lack of power to influence what’s going on in their street and neighbourhood. The classic is planning. With the local council often getting the blame for being officious when actually the planning department is applying national rules.
We’ve seen greater centralisation under this government and it is dangerous. The changes to permitted development rights to turn offices to residential in my part of central London will be so tempting to some owners it could cost thousands of jobs. The council has no say and local communities have no say.
But when people’s jobs start going they’ll come to us to complain.
Too much public money is still siloed in communities because of Whitehall departments not because it’s what communities need.
In Camden there’s plenty of examples where we try to ignore the barriers – the council funds Camden Safety Net a domestic violence service, but it sits in Holborn police station – it’s an award winning and, more importantly, life saving service in spite of DCLG and the Home Office not because of them.
Adult social care is littered with cases, up and down the country, where Whitehall has stymied good care and wasted millions in public money. If councils and service users have more influence over the whole budget we’ll save money and get much better care.
Listening to Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas this week the Labour party finally seems to be moving away from centralised control over delivery. It’s bold to win power to only to give it away. But the potential gains for communities, individuals and the future of public services are huge.
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