David Boyle

The sheer complexity of centralised government

Town & Country Planning, December 2013

 

Rory Stewart is something of a phenomenon.  He is a travel writer in Afghanistan, of all places, and a former diplomat there.  Now he is the Conservative MP for Penrith.  Unlike so many politicians, he always has something interesting to say.

I ran across him most recently giving a lecture for the right leaning localism think-tank Localis and – unusually for lectures at think-tanks – he made me think.

To be specific, he made me think about exactly why it is so difficult to make things happen locally.

He told the story of a small community in his constituency and their long battle to get a broadband connection, digging the trench, raising money and eventually persuading the government to fund the remaining £17,500 – a long, exhausting process.

It was exhausting because of the complications which inevitably emerge for this kind of project: was the decision to choose the only possible contractor open and transparent?  Would Brussels give permission to pay this money in state aid?  We can all imagine the kind of thing.

He ran through a whole range of other examples too, but he didn’t really need to.  We all know the phenomenon where local action and enthusiasm – what we might once have called the Big Society – loses the will to live.

We inspire out children in primary school, he said.  We tell them they can be whatever they want.  We tell them they can be Nelson Mandela, he told us. Then as soon as they try do something locally, they end up wading through treacle.

“We need to intimidate our descendents,” said Rory Stewart, about the legacy of our generation.  “We need to validate the role of being local politicians.  We need to bring out its nobility and its appeal.”

The audience was mainly local politicians and they certainly responded.  As a breed, they have lacked nobility for too long (I mean it).

He is, of course, completely right.  But there is an irony about it.  Both those objections from central government about helping the villagers with their broadband were a legacy not of state control, but of deregulation at European level, driven by Conservatives.

They are, in short, the side effects of a certain kind of free market brought into being with the so-called single market.  They are regulations that are vigilant against local cronyism and against national subsidy.

In practice, they constantly frustrate local entrepreneurial energy.

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I have become convinced, after three years of a coalition dedicated to localism, that this complexity, often created for excellent reasons, is what stands in the way of making things happen at local level – just as it stands in the way of making things happen at national level.

I remember talking to one of the IT contractors in charge of the Oyster cards on the London underground, explaining why nothing had happened, despite the agreement that they should adapt the card as an electronic purse to use on shops in underground stations.

The answer was that the fear of complexity was too high.  It was all too easy to imagine the unintended consequences of a few simple tweaks which would shut down the whole payment system of London transport – and the fear of embarrassment was greater than the fear of failure.

The same is true with the whole public administration system.  Ministers and civil servants fear the unintended consequences of tinkering with a system that is so complex that nobody can see the whole of it.

I have met ministers raging against the unintended consequences of a simple shift in their own mechanisms, enlightened reforms which unexpectedly impacted on people they never dreamed of.  And there you have the main barrier against a localism worthy of the name.

So, yes the coalition has introduced the Localism Act, with powers that can be drawn down by people who want to make a difference.  They have introduced City Deals, an imaginative and potentially transformative system that allows cities to do the same.

But in practice, these have been grafted onto the top of a highly complex machinery remains unaffected.  It is a machine that may prevent chaos, as its defenders believe, but also prevents everything else as well.

As a result, neither have had the transformative result they could have.  They have worked, where they have worked, despite the system and not because of it.

The growing frustrations of ministers because the system is so difficult to shift, the growing miseries of civil servants on the receiving end, the frustrations of entrepreneurial cities and towns, all amount to the same thing.  Our system of administration is far too complex.

We await politicians with the nerve to realise that the only solution to this constipated over-complexity is to devolve power radically where there are some levers to make things happen.

title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers