The Reluctant Armchair Auditor

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What ‘The Snow’ tells us about the limits of localism

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By all accounts the Secretary of State for Transport is a good minister – at least that’s what I hear from people I respect who should know. He is learning a hard lesson at the moment about how the blame game works when public services don’t work as well as the great British public expect they should.

Here he is yesterday on ITN talking about keeping the roads running.

As a (reluctant) armchair auditor I’m finding what’s happening with ‘The Snow’ interesting. The government is very big on localism. It – apparently – believes in shunting decision-making to the nearest possible point to the action. It believes too that local communities should decide on their own priorities and be free from Whitehall interference in how they are chosen and pursued. Coalition politicians are gambling on there being a host of willing participants in priority-setting, decision-making and service delivery. Years of public service experience leads me to doubt that this belief is well founded but the government is entitled to hold it.

What I think peoples’ growing fury about the impact of the current freakishly cold weather on their lives tell us is this: ministers should beware.

Scotland’s Transport Minister lost his job because the roads couldn’t be kept clear. It makes no difference there were plenty of severe weather warnings that people could have acted on. Like every other day of their working lives they got on a bus or in their car and expected to be able to drive home. When they couldn’t, they got cross and politicians took the heat. There’s always a price to be paid for wanting to lead.

Let’s fast forward a bit to autumn 2011. The cuts I’m now helping to design are really beginning to bite.

The children’s centre your children used to attend has scaled back it’s activities. Your kids no longer get the range of activities they did.  The leisure centre has scaled back its hours too so you’ve had to re-arrange your life to keep up your classes. They also cost more so you’ve knocked some on the head. At your kids’ school you notice that the planned building work and upgrading of the IT facilities hasn’t yet happened. A bit of a ruck is developing over whether the school should pursue a change in status. Would there be some more money on the table if it did?

You notice how bad the roads still are after the winter of 2010/11 the surfaces of many make your car rumble and vibrate. There’s a couple of impressive potholes that you know now to slow and swerve for. Experience gained at the cost of a new tyre and alloy wheel.

You’re worried about your parents as they now have to pay quite a bit more for the care package they have. They are seeing a succession of care workers now after the service was outsourced. They’re bit worried about the rent now as well as they think it’s going to be going up. Their utility bills, and yours, have gone up too.

Quite a few of your friends have been laid off either from the council or from jobs that depended on the council. You’re worried about your own business. The high street has been getting quieter and there’s been a bit more anti-social behaviour in the precinct. The local policing team has been reorganised, there was a story about it in the local paper.

You’ve also heard something about some reorganisation in the NHS. But no-one you speak to is very clear about what it’s all about. The campaign to save the local community hospital has started up again. A friend of your wife who works as a finance assistant in the medical centre said that they are working on a ‘big deal’ with a private company and that’s taking up more of the GPs’ time. They’re all really excited by it.

Your oldest child who was thinking about going on to university after sixth form has decided instead to get a job and will stay on at home.

When you get together with your friends you talk about all of this and more, in the way friends do.

I am labouring to reach my point so here it is. Clearly an act of God like snow can drive the public to fury with politicians. So how are they going to react when it’s much clearer the falling quality and availability of public services are directly the result of changes directed from the top. Snowy roads – Philip Hammond; duff council services – Eric Pickles; distracted Health Services – Andrew Lansley; ropey schools – Michael Gove; university fees – Vince Cable; and, so it goes on.

If the fury over the current transport problems is a guide all ministers can expect some troubled times ahead. Localism will not protect any national politician from being the object of fury when people in local communities find their lives harder and less full of flavour.

As I said there is always a price to be paid for wanting to lead. Localism doesn’t do anything to change the essential characteristics of that equation.

For armchair auditors the challenge will be to sort out where responsibility for cuts actually rests. Where’s that abacus?

Written by reluctantarmchairauditor

December 19, 2010 at 2:56 pm