The problems of policy making from the centre

Two fairly recent reports have been lauded to the skies by the government as indicators that the old days of excessive centralisation are over. These are the ‘Portas Review (pdf file)’, published at the end of 2011 and ‘No Stone Unturned (pdf file)’ written by Michael Heseltine and published in October 2012. The Heseltine report in particular makes huge claims to be about local decision making.

In practice though, they are nothing of the sort. Both of them start from the position that the seat of power is located at the centre so that when a decision is taken locally that is only possible by the grace of government. This isn’t surprising – we are after all not citizens of the UK, but subjects of the Queen, and the government acts on her behalf. Local councils cannot do whatever they want. but only those things expressly mentioned in statute. Whatever is not mentioned is forbidden – the doctrine of ultra vires.

This makes genuine local decision making quite difficult. It isn’t just that politicians want to hold on to power – although that applies too – but that the legal system places the seat of all power at the centre. It is rare though that you find a politician who admits to this basic fact or who is prepared to do anything about it. You will get lots of noise about localism, about not interfering, but in their heart they still think they are actually giving us something, rather than not taking it away.

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