When I was stalled halfway up a hill in deepest Kent and preparing to fail my driving test yet again, my instructor came out with his familiar homily: ‘Give her the power to do the job’.
He had a simple vision of empowerment, which could probably be reduced to an equation: acceleration plus correct gearing equals motion. Sadly, the equations we come up with to give our communities power are far more complex and much less reliable.
For a start, we have difficulty defining the job. So we resort to the vague term ‘empowerment’, something as impossible to disagree with as it is to nail down. Is empowering people letting them take decisions? Is it giving them budgets?
David Miliband has been grappling with such issues in his preparations for a white paper on local government. Last week he explained: ‘We want to empower people through a national neighbourhoods framework, local neighbourhood charters, a rules of the road for local behaviour and a range of options for neighbourhood action.’
That all sounds well and good, if a little imprecise. The main thrust of the forthcoming proposals will be to devolve some local government functions, along with moves to encourage community ownership of assets such as public buildings.
The idea of a menu of options rather than a rigid structure is good, even if it looks a bit like a dog’s breakfast. Much of the thinking behind it has come from the Young Foundation, which has put out a discussion paper calling for extended rights and powers to be combined with ‘neighbourhood capacity building’ and agendas for change in public authorities, and the flexibility to create new structures in response to local demand.
The success of neighbourhood wardens and neighbourhood management shows how services can be improved in response to local needs. If the white paper puts such initiatives on a sustainable footing, it will be welcome.
But remember the words of my driving instructor. It’s about the power to do the job - so first identify the task. Local people and government officials may have very different ideas of the task in hand. If ministers are ready to listen, even at the cost of their own power bases, there’s hope in politics yet.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine
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