David Miliband, during his brief tenure at the department of a thousand logos, gave us double devolution. Last week Ruth Kelly gave us devolution to the doorstep.
What my doorstep will do with its new powers is a question I’ve yet to get to grips with. I’d like to think it will be something hospitable and welcoming, though after recent news that doormats are a safety hazard I may be forced to reconsider.
But I fear the local government white paper will give me more of the stuff that already arrives on my doorstep. The kind of groundbreaking consultation that asks: ‘Do you want your city to be cleaner, greener and safer?’ and then trumpets it as a breakthrough in public involvement when the answer is affirmative.
The other day I listened to Geoff Mulgan, a man far closer to government than is generally healthy, contemplating some of the conundrums of building communities and devolving power. It was an honest and considered analysis of some of the issues we must grapple with, from community cohesion and transferring assets to wellbeing and happiness. His organisation, the Young Foundation, is doing some important work on how neighbourhoods can work better.
But so far the discussion about devolving power has fudged the question of conflict. If we’re to pass real powers down the line, as Gordon Brown this week declared he would, we have to accept that they may be used in ways we object to. We can’t offer people the chance to shape their own destiny but circumscribe the way they do it until it conforms to our national strategies.
That calls for difficult trade-offs, negotiations and an understanding that conflict is often not only inevitable but also necessary. Instead of running scared, we need to create spaces where it can happen safely.
Fifty years ago local democracy and the labour movement used to create such spaces. Now that the differences between the parties are largely cosmetic and the trade unions have been marginalised, those forums have fallen into disuse. So democratic renewal must be more than an aspiration: it’s a prerequisite if ‘devolution to the doorstep’ is to be more than conference season hogwash.
Julian Dobson, editor, New Start Online magazine