Monday, 28 April 2014

The Myth of Localism

The best-informed decisions are those made by local people about their own communities. Unfortunately, this government’s localism agenda has shown that Orwell’s 1984 “doublespeak” (“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”) is alive and well in 2014. Localism has come to mean the complete opposite of what had apparently been intended.

A community has the right to bid to run public services if it so wishes. However, when such a bid is made, a full-scale tendering process is triggered – allowing large and distant corporations – with armies of lawyers and accountants – to move in: how can neighbourhood groups compete? This is privatisation of local services behind the smokescreen of giving people a greater say.

A community has the right to buy assets in its neighbourhood. However, this is no more than a right to bid, the owner being entitled to reject such a bid, even if it is the best offer on the table.

And neighbourhood plans allow local people to shape their communities – so long as those communities accept the future includes building lots of new homes – with numbers dictated from on high.

The greatest scandal of localism is its use to roll back the state – shutting public services down and hoping families and charities pick up the pieces – Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ a pale echo of Thatcher’s ‘Care in the Community’. This taps into a perception that public services are often a second-best to doing it ourselves at home if we can. But as things stand, this would be the most regressive step for women possible to imagine – a return to the world before the welfare state – men went out to work and women stayed at home to look after the children, the sick and the elderly. 

Volunteering may be an answer. However, current government policies of privatisation cut right across the ethos of volunteering. People will volunteer for local charities, schools and hospitals, but are less inclined to help private providers make greater profits or reduce costs by making paid staff redundant. Privatisation undermines attempts to get more volunteers; public services run directly by the state or by voluntary organisations are more likely to attract them. 

People will volunteer, but only if the overall social framework is one of cooperation and mutual support, not one of competition and greed. “To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and a whole heart and a free mind.”

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Malvern and its Food Bank

Malvern has a food bank. Words I never thought I would utter. While it is a phrase that should gladden us – after all “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members”we must ask why it is that Malvern needs a food bank.
This week we have learnt that more than 1,400 people (over 600 of whom were children) received emergency aid from our local food bank. Even our relatively prosperous town is being hit by two pernicious philosophies that are leading to the devastation of public services – and to the concept of ‘public service’.
First, we have “trickle-down” economics – if we allow the richest in our society to become even wealthier (the household wealth of the top 10% is 100 times the wealth of the poorest 10%), some of that wealth will, eventually, “trickle down” to the least well-off. Feeding from the crumbs of the table of the rich is no basis for a caring and just society. The rich rarely know when they have enough and need to share. Successive governments of whatever persuasion have not been inclined to encourage them to do so.
At the same time there is the belief that the marketplace delivers more cost-effective and better-quality services. Whether it is the NHS, higher education, public utilities, transport – now the Royal Mail – history has taught us that a marketplace of privatised monopolies, where the short-term interests of shareholders are prioritised ahead of the needs of citizens, is no guarantee of the quality or cost-effectiveness of essential services.
Further we have the myth of ‘localism’ – government dressing up its disinclination to deliver essential public services as an exercise in giving communities the ‘opportunity’ to take on that burden – but without the resources and support to do so. Ever more services once delivered by qualified professionals are now run by well-meaning, but essentially amateur, volunteers, doing their best in the face of government indifference.

I urge you not to give in to politicians of every hue seeking to turn us against the weakest in society, but to support the likes of the Food Bank. Let’s be thankful that we have those willing to step in when government abrogates its responsibilities. But it is no cause for celebration.