Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Six Months

That’s all it took. All it took for the Coalition’s true programme to be made manifest. It talks the talk about decentralisation and localism but does it walk the walk?

We await with interest the so-called Decentralisation & Localism Bill. We shall withhold judgment until we can read it, but recent pronouncements on housing and education suggest that Downing Street’s dictionary differs from our own.

Take the much-vaunted return of planning powers to local councils. Scared of being told off for not concreting over our farmland fast enough, the Coalition wants to bribe councils to allow house-building by paying them a ‘New Homes Bonus’, contrary to the principle that planning permission is not for sale. Across England, the bribes will cost the Treasury almost £1 billion. Now, let’s be clear about this. Decentralisation, in the planning sphere, means they take our money off us, in the form of taxes, and won’t let us have it back unless we dance to their tune. Even the usually dense Western Boring Views, in its editorial of 13 November, could see through this one, doubting there would be many takers and opining that controls on second homes need to be looked at too. What, put people before property? Is that the rumble of the tumbril we hear in Derriford?

Housing is as nothing compared to what is happening in education, where Michael Gove is looking to dictate every last detail of what happens in schools. Can anyone tell us what his department is actually for? Schools are run by professional people. Answerable to governors, who include parents. And supported by the children’s services departments of elected local councils. Gove’s department spends £60 billion a year, apparently on doing other people’s jobs for them. It doesn’t even appear to know, or care, who else does what. A now infamous letter inviting schools to apply for ‘academy’ status went out to head teachers, even though it is the governing body and not the head teacher which is responsible for the status of the school.

So mistrusting are Gove and his chums that at one point they seriously intended to take over the entire schools budget and allocate it centrally from Whitehall, direct to schools, cutting out communities completely. The latest report is that Gove & Co have caved in, but we expect this one to make a comeback. Their current plan is to seek to make directly-funded ‘academies’ the norm and so achieve their aim by stealth. Setting up the quango to run such a system – the Education Funding Agency – remains a White Paper commitment. Local authorities as a group have bargaining power with Whitehall that 24,000 individual head teachers can only dream of. And Wessex, if it had the autonomy now enjoyed by Scotland and Wales, could simply tell Whitehall to shut up and go home.

Freedom from council control – alias the council safety net – may turn out to be a case of from frying pan into fire. Like the rest of the ‘Big Society’, what this is really about is dismantling cost-effective but publicly-provided support services in favour of privately-provided ones that cost more but tick the box of moving resources out into the global financial markets. (Rules are being bent to prevent in-house bids.) The books are then balanced by reducing the range and quality of services. One of the benefits of local control over funding is that councillors have been able to speak up for the social and environmental benefits of village schools, protecting them from the professional bean counters. Under centralism, all that will change, as no provision for local top-ups seems likely to be made. We can look forward to savage cuts, with village schools across Wessex going the way of village shops, pubs and post offices.

Maybe not all just yet. Tory voters in marginal seats will be safe for a while. But in due course, with Labour back in the driving seat, won’t its reptilian desire to punish rural England rise to the surface as always? And what is to stop a future Labour government re-organising schools right across England by cutting off funds to those that won’t bend the knee? Centralists gather in power, then they lie and cheat to hold on to it. The more power they gather in, the more desperate they become to prevent the other side sharing in the spoils. Even when, as now, you really can’t tell the difference between them.

If you voted for the Tories, you shouldn’t complain when they set out down this road. If you voted for their glove puppets, what ever were you thinking? And if you still reckon that Labour are going to become reformed characters and start putting communities in charge, well, we’ve certainly heard that one before.

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