Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Dangers Of Devolving Power Locally

For anyone who wishes to see a smaller state, there is an essential requirement that much of the decision-making should be distributed to smaller, more local, legislatures.

It would tend to make sense too. What is seen to be ideal by those in their bistro-frequenting government bubble is not necessarily what the 'pie 'n' mushy peas', sheet metal working town would be happy with. If you're in business, you don't ask the Board of Directors how best to design a washer for the big machine you're making, you talk to the guy who has to fit them - or you should do if you want your product to be efficient and reliable.

Governing exclusively centrally is as flawed a system as is possible. As the saying goes, you can never please all of the people, the best that can possibly be achieved is to please most of the people some of the time. Additionally, with any electoral method one chooses to run by, vast swathes of the public simply don't feel that their input is listened to and opt out of the process entirely, which inevitably weakens the system as a whole.

The result is the modern application of 'game theory' in governing, and no matter how altruistic a politician, he/she is always going to be viewed as acting on an "I know better than you" basis.

Unfortunately, when devolving power to a local level, there is always the danger that those who will be wielding that power are less capable of wisdom or common sense. It's natural that the fewer people one needs to convince of one's acumen to gain power, the less intelligence is required in the process.

This is demonstrated day after day in reports of incompetence and stupidity at local authority level, from all compass points of the country. Here is a perfect example from the London Borough of Hackney, old hands at the art of the provincial fuck-up.

A mural by graffiti artist Banksy, which once featured on the cover of a single by rock band Blur, has been painted over by Hackney Council.

The building's owner was in tears as she begged workmen to stop. By the time she persuaded them it was almost gone.

Hackney Council said the image was painted over in error.

Now, whatever one thinks of Banksy's 'art' - personally, although I disagree with much of his politics, I think his works are always eye-opening and imaginative - it's clear to anyone, surely, that painting over such an iconic image is something which should be approached with the utmost care. Not through reverence to his work, but because it's quite obviously going to descend into a right mess if it's not done impeccably.

Considering that fact, it's hard to see how Hackney could have gone about this in a more ham-fisted and brainless manner ... especially as it was on private property.

Hackney Council needed permission to remove the mural because it was on private property.

But its letters were sent to an address Ms Attrill lived at 25 years ago.

After receiving no response the council served an enforcement notice.

There is so much very wrong with this that it's hard for anyone to argue that giving these numbskulls more power is a good thing.

Why, for example, was a letter sent to the owner at a different address when it was surely quite clear that the best place to send a request would be to the property at which the work was due to take place. Even if there is a valid reason why the letter was sent elsewhere, when no reply was forthcoming wouldn't it have been prudent to send someone to knock on the door of the property, considering the nature of what they were to be permanently erasing (she is local, after all, and they are a 'local' authority)?

I'm sure they knew exactly who painted this mural and its provenance. If not, they must have been a) living in some black hole for the past decade and/or b) blissfully unaware of what goes on in their own borough. The other option, of course, is that this was done in spite. After all, despite the high regard with which he is held by the arts community, Banksy is a bane of councils up and down the country. This appears to be the only scenario in which Hackney's strict adherence to bureaucratic procedure would make sense.

If so, this illustrates the other unwelcome trait amongst local authorities. Capability may deteriorate the smaller the organisation, but paradoxically, the jobsworth mentality is always hugely magnified. These 'big' fish enjoy arrogantly lording it over their little pond. And Hackney councillors are no exception.

Hackney Council was initially unrepentant.

Cllr Alan Liang said: "The council's position is not to make a judgement call on whether graffiti is art."

But he later added: "Due to a problem at the land registry unfortunately our letters stating our intention to clean this building didn't reach the owner.

"As soon as we realised this, work stopped. We are now speaking with her about how to resolve the issue."

The old council two-step. Step 1, deny they have done anything wrong by using any justification they can possibly dream up. If that doesn't work, move to step 2 - blame someone else.

I'm all for the libertarian ideal of taking power away from big government and empowering local communities, but how this is to be done when local authorities are infested with wasteful, bureaucratic, arrogant, incompetent, self-regarding dickheads, is an issue which needs to be addressed before giving them scope to apply their lame-brained lack of aptitude and common sense in further areas of governance.


davidncl said...

By using the internet to move decsion making and planing from a few officals to teh masses.

Lets but the budget of each council line by line to the vote of those who actually pay the bills.

Like wise the NHS. Every PCT's fincancal decsion making in the open on the web.

This is the radical aspect of localism that the likes of Doug Carswell and Dan Hannan.

JuliaM said...

"I'm all for the libertarian ideal of taking power away from big government and empowering local communities, but how this is to be done when local authorities are infested with wasteful, bureaucratic, arrogant, incompetent, self-regarding dickheads, is an issue which needs to be addressed..."

Serious penalties - i.e. loss of job and getting hit in the pocket personally - for council employees who break the law and damage personal property.

Ian B said...

Well, I'm not sure that this is actually an issue of local democracy. Not that I'm in favour of local democracy anyway- a local tyrant is just as much oppressive government as a distant one.

But since this was on private property, is it not a case that the council committed the crimes of trespass and criminal damage? Or are councils empowered to arbitrarily repaint anything they decide to; like, can you wake up one morning to find council workers repainting your house, and when you complain they say "we can paint anything, we are teh council"?

The point is, governance has too many powers, and it doesn't matter what level those powers are exercised at, since local, provincial and european government are all just levels of the same thing. What needs to happen is the removal of powers from any level of governance and their handing back to individual citizens. Democracy is a good way to make a collective decision- probably the best- but very few decisions actually need to be collective. You wouldn't dine in a restaurant where everyone has a vote every five years on what dish to eat, then everyone is forced to eat that for the next five years, would you?

Some decisions are best made nationally, some locally, but most are best not made at all.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I commented on this over at Blue Eyes Blog, I think the whole thing stinks and I go with 'spite'. Here is another example of a council ignoring the law and actually seizing and destroying private property from private property

A “DISGRACEFUL” council took away and destroyed a resident’s car with no legal justification, a watchdog claims.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Pavlov: Thanks for the link(s). Yes, same type of overbearing local nonsense.

Davidncl & IanB: You seem both to be approaching the problem from the same viewpoint. Sort of, anyway (I nearly mentioned Carswell, Hannan, The Plan etc funnily enough).

Agreed that the public should have more autonomy and 'authority' less. As you mentioned, Ian, this would have been trespass except that the LA apparently has been granted powers via a statutory order. Fine if there is no other possible resolution, but it would seem that they used such power atrociously here.

Are we saying then, that authority can't be trusted at all, though?

It's nice to think we could organise our own affairs, but that's as idealistic as the lefty 'all equal' nonsense (desirable but practically impossible) and look where that has got us.

The fact is that there are always those who are quite incapable of organising even putting one foot in front of another, let alone anything else, so there is a need for an authority of some kind.

It's how it is organised which is the big question. It's clear that what we have is woefully inadequate, and extremely damaging, as this philistinism illustrates.

Dick Puddlecote said...

And JuliaM: I hope the woman sues the bastards for a fortune. A Banksy is worth thousands IIRC. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Local nannies are easier to find,
their families and friends more
prone to adverse attention,more
likely to listen.

Free Corps

Ian B said...


Are we saying then, that authority can't be trusted at all, though?

If you need to "trust" authority, it has too much power already.

Ian B said...

It's how it is organised which is the big question. It's clear that what we have is woefully inadequate, and extremely damaging, as this philistinism illustrates.

Dick, the big thing you need to grasp here is that "authority" is always like that. You can't have a version of authoritarian government that isn't extremely damaging. The mistaken belief that you can have a good authoritarian government is the most damaging idealistic nonsense of them all.

"I am going to give some other people absolute power over me, and then I expect them to use it in my best interests".

Yeah. Dream on...

Junican said...

IanB's comment of 17.40 5th Sep has hit the nail on the head, hasn't it?

The fact of the matter is that the majority is not always correct. For example, it is not long ago (say, five hundred years) that even the best brains in the civilised world believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

There is no reason at all for Local Authorities to be judgemental. Their remit is to clean the streets, ETC. Unfortunately, Central Government has given them duties to become policemen. Here is a good question, "Why did Local Governments AGREE to become policemen?"

There is something wrong which needs to be sorted out.

davidncl said...

"Are we saying then, that authority can't be trusted at all, though"

For sure. Because authority (central planning) can't and doesn't work. Read your Hayek etc for more details. Or just look around you.

It's because the state is so very crap at doing things I'd like it stop or be stopped from doing as much as possible. A multi pronged attack is needed here:

1) Stave them of cash. If we can get the micro budget of the state under the microscope of teh masses by using teh interwebs (many eyes watching the officials). Maybe we can even get spending under direct control.

2) Blind the state. Campaign to get all local and national statistical services shut down.

3) Get them the f*ck away from our kids. Shut down the compliance and boredom factories.

You get the idea.

davidncl said...

In the event you do want to read some Hayek you could do worse than start here (online pdf)

Individualism And Economicorder (Hayek)

BTS said...

Ian B: 'Authoritarian' and 'authority' are two different things and it's mistaken to automatically assume one from the other. I've never heard of Dick advocating anyone having absolute power over him.

Although what he gets up to in his own bedroom is his business..