Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Does size matter

If I understand the Welsh Tories correctly, they're against devolving power over some aspects of housing to Wales because they think that the Assembly might use the powers in ways which the Tories would not support. In this particular case, the bone of contention appears to be the badly misnamed 'Right to Buy', which they are afraid Wales might abolish given her own way.

I wonder if they would be consistent, however. If the so-called Right to Buy had already been abolished in England, and there was a chance of re-introducing it in Wales, would they still oppose the devolution of the relevant powers? Somehow, I doubt it.

Opposing the transfer of powers because they might not like the outcome appears at first to be just another confirmation that they simply don't 'get' devolution, but there is a serious point here, which they might be in danger of stumbling on, even if only by accident. How do we decide which issues should or should not be devolved?

The responses of the two extremes on the national question are obvious. For those who oppose devolution, the answer is nothing; for the nationalists, it’s everything. It’s so easy for them to answer, because they both start with a fixed idea about the ‘right’ unit for government. But I find neither response to be particularly enlightening - and I have a question for each.

To those who believe that it is vital that certain areas of policy should remain with the larger unit, for the sake of strength and consistency, I would ask, ‘So why aren’t you proposing transferring those powers to Brussels?” Surely, if consistency and scale are so important, differences between the UK and France are as intolerable and unnecessary as differences between England and Wales?

And to those who believe that everything should be devolved to the smaller unit, I would ask, “So would you be happy to devolve the decision to Ynys Môn?” If local decision making and democracy is so important, why should things have to be the same across Wales?

I tend to start from a ‘localist’ viewpoint, and my personal disappointment with devolution to date is that there seems to be a centralising tendency within Wales, rather than any real effort to empower local communities and counties. My presumption would always be for taking decisions at as local a level as possible, and involving people in them as far as possible; but how to decide which cannot or should not be taken locally?

On pragmatic grounds, I don’t think it would be helpful to go back to the pre-railway times when Cardiff and Newport could set their own clocks for instance. Neither does it seem to me to make a lot of sense to allow different counties in Wales to decide on which side of the road people should drive – although the UK opt-out from most of the rest of the world on this one doesn’t seem terribly logical either. Those are obvious examples where consistency is important for purely practical reasons, but not all issues are as black and white as this.

The second problem with devolving as much as possible to the lowest levels is how you achieve a fair distribution of resources. There can surely be no real question that, the bigger the unit, the more resources it potentially has at its disposal, and the more it can do to switch resources from the wealthiest to the poorest. I’ve always felt this (the idea of a fairer distribution of wealth) to be one of the strongest potential arguments against devolving power downwards. (It does not, of course, follow that having the ‘power’ to do something means that it always gets done effectively, or even at all, and that is one reason why the argument does not stand up as strongly as it could).

The other problem with local decision-taking is that it might lead to decisions with which I don't agree - and this is where the Tories have stumbled on a point which worries me. One of the greatest and most courageous decisions taken by the UK Parliament was the abolition of the death penalty. Yet, I am fairly confident that, if this decision was given to the people to take, we would not only still have the death penalty, we would probably reinstitute flogging as well. So what if, in devolving maximum power to the lowest possible level, some areas/nations/ countries (delete according to prejudice) end up taking decisions which I would find completely unacceptable? That is, surely, precisely the point which the Tories are raising.

I don’t know what the answer to my question is – but I am absolutely convinced that it’s not the one that the Tories seem to be pursuing, which is that you should not trust people to take their own decisions unless you are certain that they will take the ‘right’ ones. Devolving decision-making closer to the people can sometimes be a difficult road to follow, but that doesn’t make it the wrong road.


Ceredig said...

Comment from Draig moved by Ceredig to this thread:


Really thought-provoking post here. My frustration I guess is that I'm not sure the blog format supports an equally thoughtful response from responders such as myself.

But I'll have a go anyway!

I think in the world we live in today, concepts such as centralism/decentralism are far more pertinent than concepts such as Left and Right. We live in a world of large concentrations of power, where even the local authority can seem like a bureaucratic machine grinding down localised expressions of dissent.

I think this centralism is a large reason for the alienation many people feel from the political process.

Yet Democracy as we know it has only really existed for around the last 60 years, and I think Nye Bevan hit it on the head when he said it was "a system whose potential had hardly been scratched." I'd say that's as true today as when he said it.

Bevan is credited with the creation of two of the "5 giants" of the welfare state - council housing and the NHS. But are things created 60 years ago relevant to the type of world we live in today?

It's true that the Assembly has been strait-jacketed as far as Local Authority housing is concerned. The Treasury holds the whip hand. Too much centralism? Definitely. So side-step it. Which is exactly what the Assembly did with the creation of the
"Community Mutual Model".

The Community Mutual model is essentially a co-operative. There has been much debate, especially in Swansea (where it was on the cards), as to whether it is viable. My argument is that it decentralises power down to where it should be - the estates, but still retains the unified structure of a county-wide organisation.

The reaction of the traditional left has been interesting. Many of them call this "privatisation". I'd say that shows that much of what passes for "thinking" in left-wing circles nowadays is nothing more than simplistic rhetoric.

Was Tower Colliery (another co-operative) "privatisation" too?

And if Miners can run their own pits, why can't tenants run their own estates? Council Tenants today face two broad choices - stay with the council and a generally poor repair and management regime, or buy your house. Younger tenants can do that, but at the end of the day then they usually become a tenant of a new organisation - a Lender. Along with thousands of other "tenants".

How much real accountability is there with either system?

Community Mutuals offer a middle way. Would tenants have the confidence to try it? I'm not sure.

As to the Tories, bear in mind that a Tory - John Redwood - supported the Tower venture. It would be interesting to learn what the Tory stance is on community mutuals...any takers?

06 March 2008 00:45

Ceredig said...


I'm not sure that it's the 'concepts' of Left and Right which are obsolete so much as the terminology and definition.

Part of the problem has always been the "Queen of Hearts" approach to language - words meaning whatever the people using them intend them to mean. Thus 'socialism' can mean anything from the 'national socialism' of Hitler, through the 'state socialism' of the Soviet Union to the 'Social Democracy' of the British Labour Party; and by being used by both its adherents and its opponents to mean so many different things, the word ends up meaning, to most of us, precisely nothing.

But that does not invalidate the underlying philosophy behind the word's original meaning; and the core idea for me has always been that society should be run by all of us for the benefit of all of us. Utopian? Of course. And politics from such a perspective can become a matter of supporting some things and opposing others depending on whether they seem to be moving in the right general direction.

Decentralism - whether in opposition to large state bureaucracies or multi-national corporations - is, to me, a modern manifestation of the same idea.

A combination of decentralism, mutualisation and localisation is the kernel of radical politics for the 21st Century for me. To what extent it is really about new ideas rather than new ways of expressing them is another question entirely.

Southpaw Grammar said...


Excellent post comrade.

My own view is that many of the supporters of 'localism' (which doesn't include you) seem to want local decision to be made until one is made that they dont agree with. In my own constituency in Torfaen, Mike German called on the WAG to overrule a Torfaen Council decision to closer Blaenavon pool, but you will not find any statement from German or the lib dems that doesnt promote localism.

Another problem with 'localism' when taken to the nth degree is the ability to mean vastly different standards of service- a postcode lottery if you will. So people have the dually contradictory demand of 'localised' public services, but no postcode lottery.

Essentially all polls of publc opinion arrive at contradictory messages- cognitive polyphasia it is called.

To me the idea of localisation is very noble, but an ambition rather than something that will ever be implemented. Personally i would baulk at my council taking on more responsbility or my affairs when their elections yield such little participation.

It is a very noble ambition to give more power to local communities, but it wont work unless the wider problems of participatory democracy are solved. Local councils, community groups, neighbourhood groups, rotary clubs etc are all filled by the same people. It is a wrongful assumption that local democracy will not be any more flawed than the one we have currently...

Ceredig said...


"So people have the dually contradictory demand of 'localised' public services, but no postcode lottery."

Absolutely. This goes to the very heart of the argument - local control versus consistency and standards. The two ideas pull in opposite directions, inevitably. I tend towards local control, accepting the inevitable differences which that produces; but I recognise the potential problems and pitfalls.

"Personally i would baulk at my council taking on more responsbility or my affairs when their elections yield such little participation."

Perfectly understandable. But which is the cause and which the effect? Could the lack of participation possibly be related to the perceived lack of power?

"It is a wrongful assumption that local democracy will not be any more flawed than the one we have currently..."

Of course. But if it's equally flawed either way, what is the argument for centralised vs localised?

Caribbean Welsh Bridge said...

Congrats for the awesome Blog!

Could you please comment about the Segolene Royal affair at Harvard regarding her reported support for the independence of the US territory of Porto Rico?

If she can say this about Porto Rico, she may consider saying the same about Wales, right!?


Ceredig said...

Pourquoi? I think that the question of Welsh Independence is one for the people of Wales to decide on rather than French presidential candidates, n'est-ce pas?