The ghost of the postcode lottery
Localism is probably the most debated concept within the new Government’s lexicon; if only because it is superficially easier to understand than the ‘Big Society’.
In effect the debate about localism is part of a very old debate about what is the most appropriate level of Government for decisions to be made.
At one end of the spectrum are the communists who would hold that all decisions that could affect the people should be made centrally. This (theoretically) ensures that all decisions made are done so in the best interests of all the people and that (ill-defined) fairness extends throughout the land. At the other end of the spectrum is a rampant form of libertarianism or anarchism where every man is free to act in their own self interest at all times.
Squaring the circle of exactly where this balance should fall has been a challenge for thinkers down the ages. Most of the time the solution is simply an unspoken compromise.
To quote Wikipedia, subsidiarity is:
Is an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
But subsidiarity does not necessarily solve all our problems, especially in a country as small and centralised as the UK.
During the 1990s, (and here I might be victim of memory loss) the expression ‘postcode lottery’ became a frequent stick with which to beat the Government of the day. In effect the postcode lottery was negative shorthand for localism; i.e. you get different public services depending on where in the country you are living.
Institutions such as NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence) and especially local government ring-fences were reactions to this perceived injustice as central government ensured that, as far as possible, all its citizens received an equal level of public service, no matter where they lived.
This was not particularly local and those in local government moaned about it at length but it was, to a certain extent ‘fair’.
This has now changed; many ring fences have been removed, local authority control of schools and Primary Care Trust (PCT) management of health care is being phased out in favour of more local control.
Which leaves the question: if the Government are keen that we are to get more ‘local’ does this necessarily mean that we will also end up being less ‘fair’. The Government are gambling that this won’t be the case AND that the new local services will benefit from local control and therefore greater efficiency and innovation. As a Local Government worker we’re committed to fairness; the localism agenda therefore provides a double challenge. As always, we say: bring it on.