Now for LGAxit

Local government will feature in the Queen’s Speech, but is there hope of actual change? The messages are contradictory: more powers for councils, as long as they all obey central directives; more protection for the environment, but new towns must built on it.

A more fundamental change is needed: repeal the Local Government Act 1972.

Like many bands from the 1970s, the Act is a creaking parody of itself. It had an ill-starred birth, it was passed just after the Act that sent us into the European Communities.  It was knocked together hurriedly when Ted Heath was facing an election: he had unexpectedly won the 1970 election on a promise not to abolish the counties but he went on effectively to do just that. The Act was both a reaction to the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and an implementation of it. The Report was itself a reaction to changes in the 1960s. What we have today as the governing structure of modern local government is a 1970s act that was old hat even then.

The scheme of the 1972 Act did not last; before it came into effect it had to be changed, then 10 years letter Margaret Thatcher threw out one of its key planks, and ten years after that, many of its assumptions were reversed. There have been amendments and corrections, exceptions and provisos every other year since it was passed, but the 1972 Act limped on as the foundation on which stands a structure bearing almost no relation to the assumptions built into that Act.

The scheme of the Local Government Act 1972 is based on a series of assumptions including: universal two-tier government (now rare); a committee system (again, a rarity); strictly defined competences (no longer applicable); discrete employed council staff; and all to be done with paper and face-to-face meetings. On top of this have been added changes which have to be looked up in a scattering of other Acts and Regulations, joint authorities, devolved powers, mayors (whose powers have to be conferred using legal fictions because the Act does not contemplate them) and other bits held together with chewing gum and string none of which did Ted Heath’s text anticipate. It simply does not fit any more.

Even though the Act’s assumptions are all abandoned, Parliament is still forced to follow the 1970s terminology in the Act, and treat every exception to its scheme as an exception, even though there are now more exceptions than conformity.

If there is to be a radical devolution agenda, it simply does not fit the rickety frame of the 1970s.

Maybe this leftover from the age of corduroy flairs and soft-rock has been kept just because it is too complicated to work out what goes where, afraid of ‘ch-ch-changes’, but if we cannot see where the rules are, they must go.

Ted Heath’s legacy must go: the European Communities Act 1972 has been repealed by Boris, and now the Local Government Act 1972 should follow it into the bin.

A new Local Government Structure Act is needed quickly, to reflect the actual structure of local administration and to provide a framework for building anew.

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Up the Monkey Hangers!

Never mind if I have sneaked back in round here, up in County Durham, Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson’s old seat, has elected a Conservative MP, Jill Mortimer, from whom I hope we will be hearing a great deal over the next few years. She may be a Yorkshire lass, but they can be forgiving of such faults these days.

The big forgotten middle, the industrial and ex-industrial towns of Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, now have a visible presence on the government benches of the Commons. I would like to think they were never forgotten places, never abandoned. They were never discarded for their political choices as that would be corrupt. However a psychological block can arise if the only voices heard from those towns is a whine of blame and condemnation and demands for more money, despite the open evidence that it just goes down the drain or makes things worse. It stops any practical engagement.

A string of ex-Red Wall towns with Conservative voices speaking for them can make a difference. MPs are the first to speak for their towns and deserve an open ear, whatever party they are from. What they say though makes a difference in whether they are heard. Socialism has been a disaster for the industrial towns and a voice begging for more socialism or for money to be paid to client groups with no positive outcome has to be dismissed, and then the town has no sensible voice, so it will miss out. When Labour are in power, a socialist MP is still whining for money and then may be heard with more sympathy, but he can still do no good. A town in trouble needs a constructive voice with ideas that work, and Hartlepool’s new voice it that.

The North has the key to the welfare of the whole land. If commercial investment is constrained in the crowded south, the north atrophies, and the whole country has lost half of its wealth-creating potential. More money in the north means more customers.

It could easily be messed up. The southern counties are not rich because the government has done something for them, but because it has left them alone and entrepreneurs have built their empires. Constructive ideas, based on the realities of the towns and their hinterlands, that would allow enterprise to thrive and the towns with them – that is what is expected of the new Blue Wall MPs . If they succeed, maybe their work will not be appreciated, but the big forgotten middle towns, not just those with newly blue MPs but all of them, will blossom.

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Have we started to win?

The new, revamped Board of Trade has a star name – Tony Abbott no less, former Prime Minister of Australia. His appointment was widely welcomed and his technical nationality was never an issue: the Old Commonwealth is a block of peoples not only not foreign to each other but seeming somewhat bewildered to be considered separate nations, and it outlines that Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders as as home here as on the shores where they grew to manhood. Mr Abbott will do well in his new role.

His position was threatened by a blast from the left which in past years has proven deadly to any candidate for office. The left-wing attack-mob did not get their scalp this time.  Once they get their hooks into you, you’re a dead pigeon, so we have been led to believe, but not this time.  Boris has proven more robust in protecting his appointments from the mob. That is an encouraging development. Theresa May threw Toby Young and even Sir Roger Scruton to the dogs at the whiff of a Twitterstorm in displays of contemptible weakness: Boris Johnson (who has himself been the focus of many such attacks) has started to turn the tide.

Interestingly, the artificial fuss over Tony Abbott distracted attention from the other appointments of advisers to the Board of Trade, from an international field, and so protected those who are less inured to such attacks.

The New Zealand government has privately expressed frustration at the inexperience of the British negotiators trying to create a free trade agreement with New Zealand, and that is no surprise as before Brexit there was no need to develop the talent and experience. Now there is now a team lined up who have that experience and they are to be unleashed upon the world. Who’s on first I cannot say, but Abbot’s name is the most prominent and the best at opening doors.

It is an impressive line-up. The Remoaners would have had a fit at Daniel Hannan being there, had they not been involved in dirty tactics against Tony Abbot, but as Mr Hannan is the founding President of the  Initiative for Free Trade, he has the contacts to bring to bear on the enemy. In fact apart from the ex officio ministers, they are all heavyweights. It would not have happened if Boris Johnson had given way.

We may be winning then, or making the first steps.

The Culture War is not about culture at heart: it is about power. As Hobbes observed, in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power. The left-wingers, cultural Marxists, Wokeists, call them what you will, have hitherto enjoyed power. Elections and Parliament mean nothing if feigned outrage and feigned offence force the government to your will, and by the time Mrs May’s ministry had run its course, they were in undisputed control, removing public servants from office at a whim. Then there was the election in December 2019, and it might not have made any difference to the structure of power, and no election for an age has done. Something changed though. The was cultural divide in the nation was made, by Brexit into a yawning chasm, and the revenge of the spurned was seen in the fall of the Red Wall. This was a mandate for change. Boris returned to Number 10 with Dominic Cummings at his side, now with the mandate and majority and manpower to make changes.

The new extremism amongst Cultural Marxists is to be expected; they are outraged that their power has been challenged. The counter-revolution against them is underway.

There has been no change in the Twittermob. People are still persecuted and sacked for transgressing the rules set by extremists. The police still make political distinctions between different groups of rioters, shops still make customers feel unwelcome with lurid rainbow flag displays, and television reporters have still not realised that “far right” does not mean what they have been telling people it does. However that all now though seems to stop at the doors of Whitehall. There is pressure on the Civil Service to align with the programme, and there is even a Tory as Director General of the BBC. There is now open talk of a push back, of fighting the Culture War. How, has not been explained. On our side, the culturally conservative side, we play with a straight bat out of principle, and to avoid accusations of tyranny – the irony is not lost. There are lessons to learn from Hobbes about all this: mankind has not changed in four hundred years, nor indeed in forty thousand.

For now, there is robustness in Whitehall. This may spread. The momentum cannot stop though, because the other side will not stop. The success in giving Tony Abbott the position he has, not as a political gesture but because he is a bonzer pick to do the job, is a good sign for the future.

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The UK Internal Market consultation

Little heralded perhaps, but important, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has issued a White Paper entitled “UK Internal Market” and the need for it shows how far we have come, backwards mainly that this is an attempt to fix it.

It is a symptom of the regulatory state that we even have to consider the subjects in the White Paper, but as our commercial life is mired in bureaucracy and unlikely to crawl out any time soon, the effect of that bureaucracy to impede business is being looked at, in the context of a possible fragmentation of rule-making that could stop seamless operations of business across the United Kingdom, as has been enjoyed since 1707, and 1801.

Britain left the European Union, thank goodness, on 31 January this year, and the co-ordinating rules of its Single Market are dropping away. At the same time, those political parties which campaigned to keep powers in Brussels, now demand that those powers be handed to the devolved authorities, so they can make a right hash of it, but more to the point, the paper raises the point that a divergence of standards and licensing regimes would lead to companies’ having to produce different goods or labelling in different parts of the country, or limit their business to one corner of the land.

The worst aspect politically is that devolved authorities, being controlled by hostile opposition parties, will be driven to differ from the rules in England for political reasons and despite the interests of those affected by the rules – businesses and consumers. The paper only hints at that, but we can read between the lines.

It is a paper of 105 pages, largely because it constantly repeats itself, but that should not be harsh criticism, because after the many opening pages of fluff (which I would have written very differently), it comes to the main points for action: a non-discrimination principle and continual input by affected businesses. Both are excellent principles. Both should be used not only to squash future divergent burdens but also existing ones.

Four questions are raised, summarised as:

  1. Should the government seek to mitigate against both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ discrimination in areas which affect the provision of goods and services?
  2. What areas do you think should be covered by non-discrimination but not mutual recognition?
  3. What would be the most effective way of implementing the monitoring of the Internal Market and business and consumer engagement and should particular aspects be delivered through existing vehicles or through bespoke arrangements?
  4. How should the Government best ensure that these functions are carried out independently and are fully representative of the interests of businesses and consumers across the whole of the UK?

They are good questions. The fact that these questions even have to be asked is worrying, but they do.

The questions need input from those who understand their own businesses, and by all accounts the government will actually listen to them (which will be a Cummingsesque shock to the Civil Service, if they do not find a way to frustrate it). The White Paper indeed contains examples and quotes from businesses showing that a good consultation has already begun.

There is little time to respond, with observations and even ideas. This should be shaped by the reality of business – I was going to write “and not ideology”, but that is impossible.

These subjects may have to be the subject of more articles on this site, adding to those previously published.

Link to the White Paper

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Minutiae – the big failing

There are many wise heads in senior positions in Whitehall (and many who think themselves wise, but they are easily run around). The upper levels of the Civil Service are staffed by the best of those who are allowed through the flawed selection process.

In that case, why is everything that comes out of government a bit rubbish?

The chain of action

I have observed the top brains making high-level decisions to mould policy from policy, which decisions are then passed down to the lesser levels to flesh out the practicalities; then these decisions (through however many levels are required) eventually come down to the junior level to put into effect.

At that junior level there may be bright sparks, but mainly those who just want to do a day’s work according to their best understanding of instructions, and go home. They have not sat in the top-level meetings where the strategy is grown and the purposes are defined, and get the idea only through Chinese whispers.

A jobbing clerk has little incentive nor ability to “own” a project. Work to the end of the day, play safe, do not be shouted at – do not use initiative. You can see everyday carelessness in detail such as documents written on computers still set up with Microsoft defaults, US-English and font styles never used n the text, or forms which look nice but which cannot be completed on-screen without reformatting. You can see it in forms which cannot cope with variants in personal circumstances or understanding.

Form design could be a whole volume of jeremiad. Perhaps the junior officers tasked with it are told not to spend too much time, but it is a false economy as every shortcut can cause an exponential effect of wasted time when members of the public try to grapple with it.

In the detail of regulations too, the same effect is seen.  I lose track of the number of times I have had to intervene in a consultation on new regulations to point out the obvious that has been misunderstood or just passed over as tedious detail.

In 2007 I even saw a draft Statutory Instrument referring to such countries as ‘Portuguese Timor’, ‘Kampuchea’, ‘Zaire’ and (amazingly) ‘Cyrenaica’. I was able to point this out before they were published. The enacted SI still has Portuguese Timor and Zaire, amongst other anachronisms.

Details are off-putting to those with better things to do with their limited time, but detail matters because it is the level at which members of the public interact with the state.

Furthermore, every failure at the interface requires more work, more calls to helplines, more repetition, more frustration and more justification for the individual circumventing the system my misreporting. Failure in detail costs money and frustrates the purpose of the government activity concerned.

Political style

It makes no sense for the government at the political level to say that they are in favour of, say, equal treatment of every part of the realm if documents produced at the junior level forget the existence of Scotland and Ulster, or mention them only as an add-on. When the government is committed to preserving British interests, it makes no sense if online forms refer to the Falkland Islands as the ‘Malvinas’ (which is the case in some drop-downs I have found).

Where there is a fixed political policy which should be reflected across the board in government communications and actions, there should be consistency.

Away from policy, there are also fixed standards which may mean nothing to middle- and junior-level officials but which are important in the wider scheme of things: for example in any publication referring the armed forces, one always say “naval and military” not “military and naval”, because the Royal Navy is the senior service. How many would be aware of that one? Grammatical standards, presentational style and good practice – all are should be kept up to ensure the government machine not only works but is respected.

One cannot expect every individual in the civil service to be aware of every political or stylistic policy possibly affecting what he or she is doing by drudge -work though, so consideration is needed as to how to bring consistency to the sprawling machinery of government. Some better communication of policy priorities is a possibility but it can only have a limited effect given how mealy-mouthed government communications are and given the limited hours there are in a day for a junior official to do his or her work. Therefor another approach is needed.

μ-intervention

The complexity of the chain of command suggests a high risk of failure.  Experience shows this happens very frequently. There are systems in place to minimise the failures, but systems create their own inflexibilities, and there will be no committee tasked with correcting errors, no cross-departmental thinking and no method of intervention.

In that case, Whitehall needs a mechanism for direct intervention could be deployed when a system has gone awry. This is micro-intervention.

A μ-intervention unit would be cross-departmental, operating out of the Cabinet Office or Privy Council Office (or even the Lord Chancellor’s department, since the Lord Chancellor in days of old was responsible for standards in official documents).

It is little use if it just writes standards that might not be followed: that is useless on its own. In any case there are committees writing standards, as for example in the digital realm the Government Digital Service and the ‘Design Community’ do – and yet forms are still written badly.

No – a micro-intervention unit would need authority to dig into systems at every level, accessing computers directly to fix mistakes and make improvements.

It is petty detail that they would strike at, but with the intent to save more time, more money, and improve the practical interface between the citizen and the state.

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