This is the pantomime season and the tale of Robin Hood is a well-known part of that of that cannon. Indeed, the Sheriff of Nottingham is well-established in folklore as an authoritarian baddy on the side of the State against the common people of England.
In the period after King John and the signing of Magna Carta local democracy came slowly to England, probably reaching a high point in the 1960s when the voting age was lowered to eighteen from twenty-one. Since then the State has rowed back on local democracy with more and more services being taken over by Westminster. Utilities and the health service departed local government in the post-war Labour nationalisation spree, even though public health found its way back in recent years. Police and the lower tiers of the court service largely disappeared although councils were handed power over alcohol licensing, if not licensing hours. Since Labour started the academies programme, based on the Tory Grant Maintained School model, schools have also been also been coming under direct control from Westminster.
Children’s Services seem to be the latest function of local government likely to be removed from local democratic control. The Prime Minister’s announcement just before Christmas presages what might be a two stage process, where firstly, poorly performing children’s services are taken away from democratic control and then, no doubt in the name of effectiveness, the remaining effective services are nationalised and boundaries rationalised to meet some new criteria of efficiency. The plans for adoption services seem to suggest the way forward.
Does it matter whether services are the responsibility of local councils? In a piece on this blog in March 2013, I argued that it did in relation to schools. I think it does even more in respect of children’s services. These services deal with some of our most challenging and challenged young people that need the help of others. Do those services need democratic oversight? I believe that they do. Part of the problem is that local government now lacks a coherent rationale. There are cities with elected mayors; areas with one principle tier of government; other areas with two tiers and sometimes a third locality tier as well in the form of parish or town councils.
The lack of understanding of the need to manage and develop services locally is also hampered by a government that doesn’t understand about funding. Business Rates and Council Tax supported by government redistribution grants to deal with areas of low income has always been a challenge to get right. However, capping income without allowing local areas to manage local services is a recipe for the death of effective local government, especially when placed alongside the creeping centralisation of services.
Local councils had one big advantage, the discipline of the ballot box made for regular rethinks in all but those authorities where the present electoral system has created single-party states. Whether you call them commissioners, commissars or sheriffs, they are un-elected officials whose responsibility to the services sometimes risks coming before responsibility to the locality. I would change the electoral system to retain democracy rather than create services where decisions are taken far from the point of operation; but maybe I am just old-fashioned and a relic of a former age.