England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Big ideas, but little substance


Photo by Gerard Richard on Unsplash

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGIU takes stock of the political ideas and practicalities at the end of party conference season.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. I have always felt that the word ‘foolish’ does a lot of work in this sentence. I take it to mean that an unbending adherence to ideas in the face of evidence is a sign of intellectual insecurity and that it can easily lead to mischief, hence the ‘hobgoblin’.

The rigid application of a set intellectual framework to the complexities of the world means that we can find ourselves attempting to force through solutions that can never work. As Emerson’s contemporary Mark Twain put it somewhat more pithily: ‘To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.’ This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why so many of the complex challenges we face are better solved by local institutions than by central Government.

But in politics, we also know that some degree of consistency is desirable, indeed necessary. Without consistency we cannot deliver and we cannot bring people with us. So perhaps we need to distinguish between good consistency and bad consistency. We need consistency of purpose and of values and while we need to be adaptive to circumstance we also need enough consistency of action for people to work with us. Rigid thinking and inconsistent action is probably the worst of all worlds.

So, a few weeks in to a new administration do we see much consistency of purpose in local government policy? It’s hard to say. There has been strikingly little talk of levelling up – though it did get a glancing reference in the Prime Minister’s conference speech.

We wait to see how much parliamentary time will be given to the Levelling Up Bill and several of the deals believed to have been agreed are still to be announced.

From the local government side there is increasing willingness, though little enthusiasm, to accept elected leaders as the price of devolution. Is this an example of adaptation rather than foolish consistency?

But it is not clear how much drive there is behind the agenda. Instead, the focus seems to be turning to investment zones, but these feel like an idea put together in a hurry without much thought to the process or to the governance of them.

Meanwhile, at its conference, Labour also had a big idea about local government – though it didn’t get much airtime: the abolition of business rates to be replaced by…well, that is still to be confirmed.

There is no shortage of ideas, many of which we have explored at LGiU: there are local sales taxes, a local share of income tax or differentiation between needs-based services and local ones.

We shouldn’t blame Labour for not having a fully developed policy at this stage; its main task is not to frighten the voters – though it has always surprised me that a party seeking to appear like a Government in waiting doesn’t make more of the fact that it actually does govern large parts of the country at a local level.

But if Labour ever does make it into Government it will find time suddenly accelerates and it will be under pressure to deliver such reforms at speed. Then, it too, will need to find the right form of consistency.

That is the key for councils, as we lurch from one single year settlement to another. Chief executives and leaders constantly tell me they don’t worry just about shortage of money, but about never knowing from one year to the next what their funding will look like and what new hoops they will have to jump through. A foolish consistency is no good, but the right type of consistency would be a gift beyond price.

This piece was originally published in the Municipal Journal. 


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