A space between Whitehall and town hall

16th May 2003 at 01:00
We've all done it. The thank you letter we omitted to write, the birthday card we didn't send: it must, we suggest, have been "lost" in the post.

This is the excuse offered by Education Secretary Charles Clarke for the millions missing from school budgets. Local authorities these days are nothing more than posting boxes.

Whitehall determines what schools should teach. It dictates priorities, distribution formulae and staffing levels. It lays down wages and conditions. It sets targets and publishes league tables. It provides most of the money for schools and tells local authorities how much extra they should raise from council tax. We still have local government only because it has been around a long time, like the monarchy. Its sole function is to take the blame when "delivery" fails.

I doubt that anybody will bother to tackle this anomaly very soon. After all, the royal family is still going strong and there are still hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

Even so, we commentators like clarity. The Guardian's Mr David Walker would "abolish elected local government". He would have a national schools service just as we have a national health service. He dares to praise Napoleon. Mr Simon Jenkins of The Times, on the other hand, is with de Tocqueville who saw "in American townships, with their untidy budgets lacking all uniformity, an enlightened, active and enterprising population". He is for localism and pluralism. He would expel Whitehall from the classroom.

Mr Walker is old-fashioned, right-wing Labour, Mr Jenkins a Tory of such ancient variety that he is possibly its last remaining representative. My socialist head is with Mr Walker, my democratic heart with Mr Jenkins.

The argument for centralism is this. There are gross inequalities between different areas of the country: Surrey can raise far more revenue than Burnley. It is unfair that the accident of birth should land Burnley children with schools inferior to those enjoyed by Surrey children. The latter already have sufficient advantages in life and the point of public services, particularly of education, is to equal things out. So central government intervenes to hand out more money per capita to Burnley than to Surrey. But once central government is involved, you run into problems of accountability. Why should taxpayers pour money into Burnley without any guarantee that it is properly spent?

And why risk Burnley setting up a mini socialist republic, driving away business and enterprise, making the town even poorer, and so creating a greater need for central government subsidy? Why should we risk Surrey setting up a mini Texas, where the rich enjoy low local taxes, and services to poor people and poor areas are cut?

The logic of egalitarianism seems to lead inexorably to centralism. That is the traditional objection to egalitarianism: that it leads to standardisation, uniformity, bureaucracy and even dictatorship (which is no less dictatorship for being elective). Create an over-powerful central state and you risk it being used for ends other than equality.

I wish to be both an egalitarian and a democrat. Can I have my cake and eat it? I'm going to have a damn good try. I would be more ruthless in redistribution; I would have higher taxes, get more money into poor people's pockets (through state payments, enterprise grants and a higher minimum wage) so that the gap between Surrey and Burnley narrowed, and both communities would have the fiscal base to run decent public services. I would try to achieve more equality directly - thus doing more to improve health and educational standards than any new organisation of hospitals or schools could - rather than use public services as proxies. That is where I part from my fellow commentators and from new Labour.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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