Monday, March 27, 2006

Localism and equality

Stephen spells out "new localism"

said the BBC website, reporting last weekend's Scottish Lib Dem Spring Conference. And the report began:

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen has outlined plans to devolve control of health and education away from Scottish Executive ministers.

Addressing delegates at his party's spring conference in Aviemore, Mr Stephen said "new localism" would help the Lib Dems to overtake Labour.

Yet when you read on, you see that there are tensions between this support for localism and the egalitarianism which now dominates Lib Dem discourse on education. For, as reported by the BBC, the centrepiece of Stephen speech was this call:

"Let's get the best headteachers moving to new schools and new challenges every five or seven years - using their skills to prevent complacency in our best performing schools and to transform poorly-achieving schools," he said.

"And if it means we should pay more to get the best teachers in areas with the hardest challenges, where they need it most, I say we should."

This may be a good idea, but it has little to do with localism. It is about national government (in this case the Scottish Executive) using its powers and resources to override local preferences. After all, if a school has a good head the local community has a strong interest into holding on to him. For the best of motives, Stephen wants to make it more difficult for that community to do so.

The essence of localism is experiment: different communities will do things in different ways. Some of these ways will work, others will not. So localism is likely to lead to unequal provision.

The Liberal argument is that in the long run people will see which experiments work and which do not, and the more successful methods will be widely adopted. And this will raise standards everywhere.

As a good Liberal I believe this, though I suspect that many good services community, including schools, are down to exceptional individuals. So the extent to which the lessons drawn can be generalised is probably more limited than we sometimes argue.

But there is no doubt that in the short term localism will lead to inequality, and I wonder how many Liberal Democrats will react to this. For them, equality seems to have become the overriding consideration.

For instance, they hold the government's plans for city academies and foundation schools in contempt because they are not available to all children. The argument seems to be that unless a reform can be introduced everywhere, all at once, then it should not be introduced at all.

That view is a long way from localism, and I see a lot of, er, interesting debates ahead.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

On the plus side, it is positive to see such noises coming from the Scot Lib Dems, who for a while now seemed quite content with centralisation so long as it was Scottish centralisation.

James said...

An interesting debate indeed. I'm surprised that liberals are still so wedded to idea of equality - a hopeless cause if there ever was one - instead of genuinely devolving power to the lowest possible level.

Every government since Clement Attlee has reinforced the tendency to centralise, and none of it has bought equality between the various regions in terms of public service provision much closer. But there has been a cost: Increasing disenchantment with the political process by the public who feels ever more remote from the centres of power which exercise arbitary decision making over the things that count such as police and hospital provision.

I for one believe that as well as empowering people, proper devolution of powers to local councils actually would increase efficiency as public service providers would be far more immedietely answerable to their 'customers' if Whitehall were cut out of the equation.

Chasing after the mirage of equality via more central government control and unsustainable increases in public spending is what Gordon Brown is doing. We should leave him to it.