Breaking free from centralisation

By George Jones and John Stewart | 19 April 2016

The major failings of the British system of government arise because of excessive, growing centralisation and inadequate and confused accountability.

To resolve these defects requires genuine devolution to effective local government based on a flourishing local democracy.

Changes are required in the structures and processes of both central and local government and in the accountability of the many agencies and organisations operating at local level.

We present a scenario for the future to overcome the faults of the present, which derive from the centralist culture of Whitehall and Westminster. The key defects are:

  • Excessive prescription by central government departments remote from the problems faced by citizens and many of the services provided, reflecting its failure to understand the requirements of administration in a complex and multi-level system of government.
  • Over-detailed primary legislation and ever-increasing secondary legislation, curtailing innovation and initiative by those who have to carry out the requirements of this legislation and who have a better understanding of what is required than those drafting the legislation.
  • Growth in the scope of central government, leading to diseconomies of scale and consequent weaknesses of communication across government and even across departments.
  • Dominance of the fallacy problems can be solved by structural change which leads to continuing institutional change as each such change creates its own problems for those who have to work in those organisations or receive services from them.
  • Fragmentation of the system of government in localities as the number of agencies and organisations multiply and are altered to create a complex and little- understood system of government.
  • Neglect of the growing problems of accountability as organisations and agencies are established with no clear accountability beyond a remote theoretical accountability to central government.
  • Growth of procedures and plans laid down by central government involving a major use of resources at both central and local levels, distracting attention from the problems and issues faced by those working at the local level.
  • Burdens imposed by these developments devised by ministers and civil servants which absorb their time and effort as well as that of Parliament and of those who have to carry out what is decided in Whitehall.
  • Weaknesses of present forms of representative democracy when so much turns on one single election every five years in a General Election flawed by a process that does not provide a representative House of Commons.
  • Underlying all these issues is the distorted relationship between central government and those who work in local authorities, other agencies and organisations. Too often there is a failure to achieve mutual understanding.

The centre neglects the resources, experience and capacity for initiative that lie in the networks of government at the local level, limiting the scope for innovation and learning that could strengthen the entire system of government.

All these problems derive from a centralist approach which assumes without question that effective government depends entirely upon central government and requires detailed control by the centre lest local authorities and other bodies charged with responsibilities at the local level undermine central policy and what the centre assumes to be the wishes of Parliament.

Control, central government asserts, is necessary and justified by the ‘what if?’ refrain: ‘What if local authorities were allowed to go their own way?’

The assumption is that the centre better understands public needs than those who have to deal with them in practice.

Due to these centralist assumptions, issues of public accountability are neglected, producing confusion as to where accountability lies within the system of government.

Too often central government is not even aware of its ignorance of the world of implementation or of its need to build upon the understanding lying at the local level and of the problems created by its own actions.

This centralist approach expresses and sustains the belief that only central government is capable of solving public problems, developing effective policy and ensuring efficient action.

This centralist culture is expressed by civil servants, ministers and members of Parliament. They express views as facts when usually they are not supported by evidence but on what one person says to another. Among these are:

  • The alleged low calibre of councillors.
  • The public seek out MPs when they have problems, rather than councillors.
  • The more limited abilities of staff at local level, when compared with the civil service.
  • Ministers need powers to enforce their policies because the national mandate trumps any local mandate.
  • The postcode lottery, which is seen as a problem, rather than an expression of local choice.
  • The public want national action to deal with problems rather than local action.
  • The opinions of inspectors and inspections are regarded as infallible, compared with the views of the inspected and local authorities are alleged to be inefficient when compared with central government.

Underlying these assumptions is an elite contempt not merely about local authorities, but for all those who work in public services beyond Whitehall.

Based on analysis of the present workings of government, we argue a fundamental change in the system of government is required.

Some may assert that such a change is already happening because all the major political parties are committed to devolution. But the devolution policies now being implemented by central government lead to such contradictions as devolution to combined authorities, where local authorities have to accept political structures based on directly-elected mayors even though they are opposed by most councils and in most public polls.

Devolution policies are limited by the centralist culture and by the central departments in which it is rooted.

The changes required should be based on local government.

The performance of local government exceeds that of central government even if it is not recognised inside the centre.

The continuing failures of the centre are unending structural changes; each new change following the failure of the previous change.

Devolution is designed by departments dominated by the centralist consensus which has little respect for those who are to receive the devolved powers and little understanding of what is required for effective devolved government.

The failings in the system of government can be resolved only if the centralist culture is challenged and that requires fundamental change in a system of government built upon the role of local government as the guardian of the wellbeing of its area and of those who live and work within it. Fundamental changes are required in which local authorities:

  • Will have responsibility for the policies pursued by all public bodies in their area, the nature of that responsibility varying from function to function.
  • Will be given legislative powers by an extension of the role of bylaws and by taking over as their own responsibility the provisions too often specified in secondary legislation.
  • Will have adequate resources from local taxation bearing on their own voters to cover their expenditure.
  • Will have the freedom to determine their own political and officer structures and ways of working.
  • Will be based on representative democracy enhanced by proportional representation and by the development of participatory democracy to support representative democracy.

The most important changes must be in central government, where the greatest change is needed.

Genuine devolution requires far more change from central government than from local government and other local agencies to enable all these bodies to change themselves.

The centre needs to eliminate undue prescription and control, excessive inspection, prescribed plans and procedures and detailed secondary regulation.

These changes will be secured only by a constitutional statute setting out the principles which should guide the workings of government to avoid the excessive centralisation that prevents effective government.

The training of staff in the whole of government should reflect these principles.

The staffing of the centre should be revised to recognise the elimination of the detailed work that has led to its growth.

Will all this happen? Only if it is recognised that fundamental change is required. The consequences of our failing system of government need to be faced. We challenge centralisation.

George Jones is emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics and John Stewart is emeritus professor of local government at the University of Birmingham

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