Tuesday 31 July 2007

An outrageous decision

Apparently it’s rained a bit in the south of England. You’d never know it from the media, would you? Actually, I found the saturation (no, stop it) coverage quite encouraging. Despite the relentless efforts of various welly-booted presenters to work their interviewees into a tearful frenzy, most seemed to be reacting to their predicaments with those traditional British qualities of calmness, understatement and good humour.

After that road crash in Paris ten years ago, I was surprised to find myself suddenly living in a country full of flower-strewing hysterics. But clearly some old-fashioned values still prevail, even after the long and emotional “modernising” premiership of Mr Blair.

When he was finally carted off the stage, we were promised two things by supporters of his successor. First, that he wasn’t really the dour, Puritanical Scot of popular myth; and, secondly, that he was going to listen to the people. And so, up to a point, he has. Witness the popular U-turns on the Manchester super-casino and (potentially) the classification of cannabis and 24-hour drinking. All of which are, oddly enough, just the sort of initiatives that might be expected to appeal to a dour, Puritanical Scot. If he were one, which he isn’t.

Perhaps we had better leave the jury out on that, and keep a look-out for tell-tale signs like the smoking ban being extended to prohibit candles on birthday cakes, or the consumption of confectionery in public places.

What is certain is that Mr Brown is only prepared to listen to the people if they tell him what he wants to hear. This isn’t a partisan criticism: the same goes for all our party leaders in certain “no go” areas like capital punishment, immigration and European integration. To which we must now add the structure of local government. Even though I correctly predicted some months ago that the public consultation on unitary authorities was a total sham, and that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, few things have outraged me more than last Wednesday’s announcement from the perennially chirpy Hazel Blears.

Where is this alleged “consensus” on the need for change? Being middle class and childless (as my personal contribution to the fight against global warming), I have no exposure to the really big local authority budgets for education and social services. I can rely only on my experience of refuse collection, which my district council conducts with exemplary efficiency; and of road repairs, in which the county council’s performance can be described as shambolic at best. So how come it is the district council which gets abolished?

On all fronts, decision-making is becoming ever more remote from the ordinary voter. The imposition of elected mayors or cabinets has already reduced most councillors to the level of lobby fodder; now they are to be ruthlessly culled. As if that were not enough, even the urban-dominated unitary authorities will be stripped of their planning responsibilities for major projects like airports, power stations and roads, to ensure that they are fast-tracked in the “national interest”.

Whose interest, exactly? We seem to be falling into the error of believing that anything which makes money for anyone is good. It cannot be stated too often that it does not buy happiness, even if it allows some to be miserable in spectacular comfort. Are we really content to lose all control over our lives so long as we have an ever-growing supply of convenience food, new trainers and flat-screen, high-definition TVs?

The problem is that, as the reaction to the floods demonstrated, the English (when sober) tend to be rather passive. We’ve tried politely telling the Government that we don’t want a single unitary authority for Northumberland, or further transfers of our sovereignty to Brussels, and have been treated with total contempt. It may go against our natures, but surely the time to start shouting loudly is right now, before our local and national democracy is gone forever.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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