Tories torn over role of local authorities

What is the Tories' approach to local government? What role do they think councils should play in the biggest local service, education?

A questioner at a fringe meeting in Blackpool last week was not alone in finding "incongruities" in the party's approach. That afternoon Sir Norman Fowler, former party chairman and now environment spokesman, had openly apologised on behalf of the last government for treating local councils as the "poor relation" of Conservative politics, and Conservative councillors as "second-class citizens". The party's priorities now were "local government, local government and local government".

Yet in the very next conference session Stephen Dorrell, the education and employent spokesman, repeatedly stressed that a key reform of the last government had been the creation of grant-maintained schools, giving less control to "the bureaucracy" and more freedom to schools. Again and again, he criticised Labour's White Paper for proposing a bureaucratic planning system, transferring power from the school to the local authority, which in turn would have to submit plans to the Secretary of State.

John Wright, a councillor from Torridge and West Devon, complained later: "On the one hand, Norman Fowler says the fightback starts in local government. On the other, the first word on anyone's lips is Hackney - not Devon where the quality is so good only a handful of schools went down the GM road."

Mr Wright, speaking at a fringe meeting organised by the National Association of Head Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers, should know what he's talking about: he was a Devon deputy chief education officer.

Mr Dorrell said he saw no fundamental conflict between arguing that institutions should have the greatest possible voice in their own management and holding a clear vision of the importance of local government in local decision-making. He drew an analogy with the nationalised industries, where the last government had removed Westminster's power over them because it thought they were better run on another model.

"I want a system that leaves decisions as local as it is possible for them to be," he declared.

Later Mr Dorrell said he viewed local government's role as being the same as the state's "to deal with the cases citizens can't deal with themselves". For instance, it was best for a headteacher and parent to sort out for themselves whether a child should go to a particular school; the local authority should intervene only where they couldn't agree.

He said he relished the opportunity in Opposition to sort out long-term policy on these issues. Sir Norman Fowler is conducting a policy review of local government, and is keeping in close touch with Mr Dorrell. The latter is certain, however, that there will be no return to the local education administration model of 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, whatever the long-term policy, practical politics dictates that the Conservatives must revive their local parties and start winning back all those lost local councils as the first step on the way back to power.

stephen Dorrell, my best teacher, TES2 page 28

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