At the Lib Dem conference last week Local Government Leadership launched a booklet that Erica and I wrote which tries to bring together the Tory idea of ‘Big Society’ and the Lib Dem methodology of ‘community politics’. Similar booklets are being published at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences.
To be honest with you I am not sure what big society actually is. To be frank with you I have yet to find anyone who knows what it is! But we do know that it is a direction that we Lib Dems can happily join in with.
The new Government has made it absolutely clear that they will deliver increased powers to councils and then will expect councils to give increased power to local people. So far so good – as a theory it works. But in practice how many people want to be empowered? Much of our society is kept afloat by volunteers who don’t even think of themselves as volunteers. They just help people, neighbours, families and groups because that is their instinct. They do not necessarily want power or enhanced responsibility.
We can see this clearly in elections for school governing bodies. In most schools there are no elections with governors being pleased to fill their places by appointment. It can be seen also in Town and Parish Councils many of which have not had an election for years. People want to help more than they want to commit. This seems to me to be absolutely logical. It takes a particular type of stupid person (like me!) to want to spend their time out and about doing and deciding.
So in our booklet we have tried to set out the relationship between good elected governance working down to the lowest possible level and civil society where people do things but not control them. Councils work at 5 distinct levels. In Liverpool’s case they are conurbation (1.65million people); city (450,000), district (90,000) ward (15,000) and neighbourhood (300-5,000). Most people only want to be involved in the last two categories. They want to be involved with decisions that affect their school, their street, their community centre their – well anything really. That is where we get maximum engagement.
The trick of good government is to have top down strategies which deal with the wider problems both informed by and delivered by local opinion and action. In this context it is as important to delegate power to local officers as it is to delegate it to local councillors.
If all councils and their partners freed up staff and members to take very local decisions then we can ensure value for money and timely interventions in problems before they become too serious. It enables us to take the concept of place based budgeting down to the lowest possible level. It enables councillors to be the ‘Cabinet Member’ for their ward because they can take direct action
Want to know more? Both the Community Politics and Cabinet Member for your booklets are available in PDF format on the LGA Lib Dem website www.local.gov.uk/libdems