A subtle change in our collective affairs of state occurred a couple of years ago. Central Government started to shrink, in the process compressing everything within it, including local government, except that “squeezing” would be a better word than “compressing” because you could actually hear the pips squeak.
If I had to find a similar event with equally catastrophic consequences for the Public Estate it would be the collapse of a star system that forms a black hole into which everything is sucked, never to be seen again.
Whilst most people are aware of “something” having happened, few seem to know what it is. That’s how divorced “the people” have become from the institutions over which they are supposed to wield power. In fact, the “something” is Localism.
When central government thought up the idea of Localism it was a natty way of making it sound as if they genuinely intended to pass power down to local communities, in reality they took it away. It was a brilliantly executed sleight of hand.
Localism has a nice ring to it, combining implied neighbourly concern in the “local” bit and serious-sounding intent with “ism”. It actually has nothing to do with either. Two better words to combine would have been “con” and “trick”.
In Shropshire, a number of county councillors were sent out into the Shires to convince people that Localism was a “really good thing”. They fooled no one except themselves, although at least one of those councillors later publicly declared his disillusionment when he realised that Localism couldn’t stop an unwanted housing development – which even he was against – in his electoral Ward.
One of the central planks of Localism is the concept of “commissioning”. It was the stated policy of our last Leader and his Cabinet until his demise in December 2015 and remains the central policy of the current Leader’s Cabinet. It is a simple concept and deadly.
The dangers were always implicit in the concept, although I can understand why few people would realise that because, at the very least, you had to be in a position that allowed you to feel the slight tremors in the sub-strata of democracy, and one of those positions was not down at street level, the place where most people are and where most politicians, whether national or local, are determined to see them stay. [See blog post #10]
I said, back in September 2014:
Another word that you will increasingly hear is “commissioning”, used in the context of Shropshire Council’s becoming a “commissioning authority”, whereby the council pays a third party to provide the services it currently provides directly.
Well, not a lot has changed for the better since September 2014. Back then I made a note in the margin of that article: “Commissioning = abrogation of responsibility”.
‘To abolish by formal or official means; to annul by authoritative act; to repeal’
Now add to that:
‘… all the processes of democratic decision making such as to create an authority accountable to no one but itself”
‘To abolish by formal or official means; to annul by authoritative act; to repeal all the processes of democratic decision making such as to create an authority accountable to no one but itself”
…and you have Commissioning.
Whatever your feelings regarding the result of the referendum on our membership of the EU, when I saw the queues at our local polling station indicating a voter turnout far exceeding that at parliamentary elections, I knew Brexit was a distinct possibility. People only take that much trouble to vote for something they genuinely want to see happen and they rarely vote for a retention of the status quo.
But no one was given a vote as to whether they wanted Commissioning, despite its placing us in a situation identical to our membership of the EU by transferring decision making to third parties who are not directly accountable, certainly not answerable, to local communities. The transition to a ‘Commissioning Council’ was going to happen because Shropshire Council Cabinet wanted it to happen regardless of what anyone else thought, it was just going to take time to slip it in under everyone’s radar to reduce the flak. Then Fate played its hand. Central government brought in ‘austerity’ and almost overnight Shropshire Council had an outside agency to blame, the decoy would take the flak.
On the 22nd June I attended the Area Committee meeting of the Shropshire Association of Local Councils (SALC), held at Chelmarsh Village Hall. It was supposed to be addressed by the senior Shropshire Council Officer responsible for Commissioning, but as he didn’t make it the presentation was given by a department manager working under him. She made a brave try of it but found herself increasingly stumped by questions she could only answer with a plaintiff: “I’m sorry, but that’s something I can’t answer because it’s political”.
The meeting had ostensibly been called to provide the background on, and give answers to, questions regarding the swingeing ‘austerity cuts’ that will see non-statutory community services like libraries and youth services cut unless the funding of those services is taken over by third parties, whether voluntary, commercial, or town or parish councils. The meeting was supposed to focus thinking on the best ways community representatives could get together to decide whether and how to pool their resources and where best they could use them IF they chose to save the threatened services. That was a hell of an unrealistic expectation given the absence of confirmed, detailed and costed information on the type and extent of the resources needed by town and parish councils, let alone the long-term financial implication of maintaining a revenue stream in an uncertain economic climate.
I’d eventually had enough.
I reminded the meeting of Shropshire Council’s earlier “consultation”, over two years ago, regarding the transition to a Commissioning Authority and suddenly the realisation dawned on a few of those present, especially the ones who had been around when such talk was current, that what we were hearing now was nothing new, except that we were now being told to pay for it, especially since the officer addressing us had been one of those I had had those earlier lengthy conversations with over Commissioning, when I had expressed my reservations about the impact of the concept on the whole democratic process as then constituted, primarily the shift in the power to make decisions that directly affected the lives of the people who voted for us; I pointed out that what we were back then being asked to consider as a possible alternative, we were now being told to accept as an imperative, the choice was now binary: yes or no, not maybe.
What we are now being told to accept is a Commissioning Authority by default. The reality of Localism made real.