“More local powers”. The cry goes up (yet again). A scattergun of ideal world “why oh why” pieces in national and London newspapers last week, made form (of a sort) by the Tories. But it can’t happen, says former London Assembly Member Damian Hockney.
Not really, not in the way people are being encouraged to think it can: “Don’t the politicians and commentators know where the real powers have gone? Or is it just another cynical political exercise,” he says. “They should at least tell us when they are proposing a policy which would break the law.”
Commentators love the local angle. It’s nice and warm and fluffy, and something we can superficially all agree on. In the past week, both Andrew Gilligan and Tony Travers have written interesting pieces for the Standard about the subject. All good stuff and it all sounds nice and local – paving stones and plant a tree, maybe the need for more local taxes (one idea being a tourist tax…to add a further barrier to visitors coming maybe?…but let that pass) and of course reasonable moans about local problems like care home closures needing the attention of Number 10 when “the community” should decide. Most of the detail of these aspects of government are now stringently controlled from the centre, and that centre is a web of laws upon which Westminster often has little say, and none at all once they are in force.
Our local government is indeed, for 80% of the laws which govern its management, the European Union. When politicians and commentators tell us about their cherished ideal world of cheap tickets for Londoners at the Olympics (illegal under EU law) of giving the contracts to local businesses in the lead-up (also impossible under EU law), they surely need to explain those things which might actually break the law and therefore will not get done. These measures are as illegal as funding care homes by raiding the Post Office on your lunch hour with a toy pistol and a little mask over your face. But what commentators do is simply outline the detail of how this great new world can be implemented and tell us all how easy it would all be if only “Gordon” or “Whitehall” would surrender their iron grip.
It’s irrelevant whether or not you support the limitations of the exercise of power at national and local level and the ongoing transfer of actual powers upwards to EU level. I am an opponent, but I have many good friends and contacts who think the other way – however, many of these do at least understand what is happening and know that what commentators are calling for on “local control” is just not possible. But their appears to be an omerta not to mention this elephant in the room.
It’s great to read new ideas about what should be done locally. Thinking the unthinkable or even campaigning for something which might even currently be illegal is an important part of the function of the press. But it’s as if they come up with the idea then fade away after bursting into colour with some sexy details about implementing their little schemes – they take the easy road, often depending upon who they support politically, of blaming “Gordon” or “Tony” or “Dave” (and of course the Men from the Ministry…Whitehall Mandarins) for no trees and paving stones and closures of care homes.
But those being criticised cannot devolve what is not theirs to devolve. So many of these things are “competences” of the EU and it is forbidden to interfere with that which has been so acquired. Where commentators miss the point is that they assume that those who now manage are still making the rules. They are not. And they can’t bend them either, on pain of having enormous law suits land on them or unlimited fines from the EU. Andrew Gilligan comments on the “pathetic image”of the pensioners getting off a bus from Potters Bar and demonstrating outside Number 10. Well, yes it was pathetic, but largely because they all got on the wrong bus. They needed to get on the train and go through the Channel Tunnel to where the laws are really made. Indeed a member of the “ruling party” in Scotland today makes exactly that point about care homes and EU rules.
Every time a new EU Directive specifies the minutiae of how to deal with waste (locally), operate road pricing (locally), make Routemaster buses illegal to operate (locally), manage, staff and fund care homes (locally), then the power to make any laws (locally) in the area in question passes upwards to the EU and away from even Westminster, never mind City Hall. And the role of those lower bodies like Westminster and City Hall is to obey and administer. This is happening on an ongoing basis and at great speed.
BEASTS & MINNOWS
And here we see the stark insularity among all the commentators, an inward looking reference only to London, Westminster, Gordon and Dave, Boris or Ken…and a total failure to see where UK laws are actually made, and how little is the room for manoeuvre among even the Big Beasts, never mind the minnows floating about and gasping for legislative life in the “local” ponds. You do not have to be a dyed in the wool eurosceptic to grasp that almost four fifths of our laws are now made directly by the EU, and rubberstamped into law by enabling acts and Statutory Instruments. And these laws may not under any circumstances be changed, amended, altered or repealed in any way by any new government that comes into office, not even a newly elected one which has a mandate to change them.
The German Constitutional Court – always the driest and most reliable of bodies on the hard facts of constitutional implications for its own nation and others – has written very straightforward accounts of the impotence of national parliaments to make laws any longer, and the great impact on regional and local government. Now ignore for the benefit of this argument whether this is a good idea, or not. If you are happy that no elected government either at Westminster or City Hall can change London’s waste policy, or remove VAT on domestic fuel, then great for you! You have your wish. But those who talk about ‘local powers’ need to just answer the core question every time they say “why oh why can’t we…”. How can these powers, now competences delivered upwards to EU institutions, be “devolved”? Whether to the Mayor, local authorities, parish councils…or even Westminster? They cannot. They’ve all recently gone the other way.
Any devolved body would have as little power as the Prime Minister to alter the closure of care homes. The parish council couldn’t, the local authority couldn’t, a mayor couldn’t and Westminster can’t. Set up 100 new bodies and shower them with billions. They still can’t do anything except act as a “champion”. And that is what, in this regard, the Prime Minister is. He is the ultimate “champion” – he can (still) wage war or raise taxes but he can’t stop the antics in Potters Bar. Without begging those who are, in this regard, his bosses.
The real crime is that the people are now totally confused as to where real power lies (so they get on the wrong bus), and this is because of their politicians obscuring the facts, not because the people are stupid. It just remains a surprise that so few commentators really get to grips with this – it is, one suspects, much more fun acting as a chorus for the politicians’ game of blaming each other for cheap points within the narrow little world of increasingly irrelevant national politics, so obscuring from the public how powerless we are to change our laws. They might as well call for “locals” to land a man on the moon. It may also be incomprehension that the all powerful Gordon cannot with a majestic sweep of the hand make such a seemingly minor and trifling change. And never do they say “alas my hands are tied…” – otherwise why are we paying them all these perks and salaries? The fiction of being all-powerful has to be maintained…
Devolution has in reality come to mean the power to administer and (slightly) vary according to strict Directives and laws, enforced from the centre (usually the EU but occasionally still Westminster). The ideal worldism talked up by commentators may be just a feelgood diversion from reality but it misleadingly chimes in with what people actually want. The absurd Jobs for British Workers issue was an aspect of this fraudulent cod localism, the tip of a very strange iceberg – in content more like the lumps of ice which fall from aircraft toilets onto homes in West Sussex from time to time than the purity of an iceberg. When I was on the London Assembly, the Tory candidate for London Mayor came up with the wizard wheeze of these cheap tickets for “locals” to the Olympics, and commentators kept on examining the entrails of the idea (“good idea…bad idea…how shall we colour code the entry tickets…who should qualify…how do we set up a register”) long long long after we had pointed out the laws which bar all this – it appeared to us at the time that commentators felt it was inconvenient to point out the truth: it spoiled the party and sort of wasn’t fair. Much better to keep up the fiction that it was possible as it was a sexy idea. But this type of false promise which is never delivered is one of the keys to the collapse in regard for the political class and its acolytes. Yes, those who propose it had a point. Yes, it would help draw the sting for certain groups in having to pay for the Games. And it would be a credible and serious suggestion. If it were permitted, or if those who trailed it said: “Ah but of course this is barred from being introduced anyway”. And of course it’s “Europe”: and that’s “foreign news” so it’s “irrelevant”.
“Have local referenda” is another one. Er, precisely why?
The best summing up of this whole issue of the role of referenda in current local democracy was the marvellous tv interview in Switzerland which took a dramatic turn when it focussed on the local referenda for which the country is well known, at the time when the politicians were trying to persuade the electorate to join the EU. A hapless EU official was asked about the Swiss tradition of having referenda whereby units of local government can even set their own tax rates etc – ie true devolution of power. “This of course will be barred,” he declared, ruling out every referendum the Swiss had held since the year dot and waking us all up with a start. And he went on to describe local government as basically a load of ‘champions’ for its locals, enforcing the glorious centrally ordained laws with smiles and much flag waving and loads of highly paid (local) politicians. And ‘taking back ideas’ to the centre. Yeah right. And of course anyone who opposed this idea was an opponent of democracy. But if you have a centralised machine, which tightly manages the minutiae of every rule and law, how can it be otherwise? No wonder the Swiss told their politicians that they did not even want them to start discussions about membership, never mind join.
The only local referenda you can have in the UK are so meaningless now that they simply “put things on the agenda”. Sounds like a lot of money and effort to “put things on the agenda”. But you can’t have a binding referendum on offering free tickets to pensioners or Londoners for the Olympics. You can’t have one on keeping the Potters Bar care home open. You couldn’t have had one on the Routemaster bus. Because even if it was a 99% turnout and a unanimous Yes, the result would simply still be No according to ‘the law’.
And having lived through a farcical revision of Mayoral powers in my term on the London Assembly (2004-2008), I can see why it is easy to fool people into believing there is a commitment to devolution. The changes, dressed up as devolution, by and large took powers away from local government and passed them centrally to the Mayor, begging the question of how you can ‘devolve’ powers upwards to a more remote and central authority – but even these are not so much powers as delegated responsibility within a tightly guided framework and backed up by ultimate sanction…the threat to withdraw the central authority’s cash handout (or a small but marginally crucial part of it) if the individual accountable to Government (which is what the Mayor is) does not do as he is told in these areas of ‘powers’.
And the idea of more city mayors does not assist the process of devolution. The city mayor concept is part of the ongoing process of centralising power on individuals responsible to central government. They would remove power from local communities, while assuming some administrative responsibility from above. They are the mirror opposite of true devolution. Of course there is a case for such a structure, but it is not devolution or bringing powers down to local level. It is the opposite. Strangely, commentators describe the London Mayor model as ‘flawed’ because of the issue of control of the cash levers by the centre. No it isn’t. It is perfect in that regard, in that it achieves exactly what was intended. It has been successfully designed in exactly that way to ensure maximum accountability to the centre in a centralised structure. Something can only be flawed if it is not achieving what it is designed to do. The only amazement is that the commentators with all their contacts have not seen that this was the intention from the outset. But really, do they not?
The Mayor is not accountable to the people of London or the London Assembly. Not really. He is held to account by the executive in government, to implement laws which he is given sanction – mostly by the EU through rubberstamp in Parliament. In actual fact, what is so extraordinary is that since supposed devolution, central government now makes MORE decisions about how London’s services are run, not less. While devolving responsibility for carrying out those decisions.
DEATH BY DIRECTIVE
The Congestion Charge could only be introduced after our central government in that area – the European Union – permitted or sanctioned road pricing. The EU is now examining ways in which these road pricing schemes must be altered. But of course commentators will not tell you this. So here’s a prediction. During the next couple of years you will hear talk about the need for changes to the system. When the EU issues a Directive (that’s an Order), or amends the rules, London will simply have to do as its told via Parliament. The Order will be rubberstamped in Parliament (because we cannot just decide whether to obey a Directive, or amend it – it is mandatory) and Parliament will then impose “its” will on London. But you will hear very little about this. You will be told that “the Mayor has decided…” and that “he is in discussions with Government…”. You will hear the opinions of “experts” who will talk about how they have lobbied the Mayor to introduce these things. You will read of how government bodies are making it more efficient and that this shows how responsive City Hall is and how it is taking decisions. You will hear of votes on the London Assembly. You might even hear a bit of outrage that Gordon (or maybe Dave) is telling London what to do (cue for more “why oh why “local” articles from Great and Good). But what you will not hear is that the reason the rule is changing is that an EU Directive or rule has specified that it must or is about to. Those of us in the past who have worked on Directives years before they have been put in force are often astonished at how the process is almost never mentioned anywhere, except in the occasional place like the EUReferendum site or in Christopher Booker’s columns. All this other stuff is what Alexei Sayle used to have a word for (well 3 actually)*
Very like the ending of the Routemaster. Decided by EU Directive. Indeed, if the EU were to declare the C Charge no longer acceptable, then London’s scheme would have to end. Period. That is why whatever powers you give to the Mayor, they will essentially develop as powers to administer others’ laws and rules – whether the EU’s (enforced through Parliament on rubberstamp) or those declining powers of Westminster itself. So more “powers” have to be seen in this light. Sideshows about personalities (Sir Ian Blair) and grandstanding over political stances disguise this relative lack of power.
Having quoted the abrasive Alexei Sayle, it is perhaps time to cite a comedienne of an earlier gentler age. Everyone reading this under the age of 90 is permitted to switch off. When the late Pat Coombs used to be appear in the Dick Emery Show in the 60s and 70s, she had a catchphrase: “Coo what a whopper”. I am not sure she was referring to UK politicians and their comments about local power, but she could have been. Time to end the whoppers and time to start being frank. It has nothing to do with being for or against a system of governance, which is a diversion. It is about acknowledging the truth and trying to develop a structure in which people can take part in how their lives are run, “locally”. And if the political class wants to stick to the developing structure, then to let voters know what they can and cannot do. The politicians may fear the people knowing how little control they now have. But one day they will know. Don’t let it all burst out in extremism and anger when the people prise the information out of the political class and then vent serious aggro against them. This is happening in some countries in a limited way already. “Power to the community” over local affairs should not mean “the European Community”, and if it does, we all need to know where we can go to change things. It should not stop at Gauleiter Gordon, ‘Champion’ of Potters Bar.
* cack – said three times and very fast. Try it at home yourself.