London's Mayoral election is getting plenty of coverage but the local elections taking place in 155 council areas across England and Wales the same day have generated far less interest. As yesterday's Daily Telegraph noted:
Council elections never attract much interest. Average turnout in local polls since 1996 has been 35.4 per cent. And those who do vote tend to treat the election as a miniature referendum on the national parties, a megaphone through which to shout at Westminster.
The reason is straightforward. People don't think that the composition of their local council is going to make very much difference. Indeed, it's hard to think of any developed country in which local government is weaker than here in Britain. As the Telegraph continued:
Schools and hospitals are largely run from Whitehall. The decree on fortnightly recycling came, in effect, from the EU's Landfill Directive. Three-quarters of council budgets come from central government, the highest proportion in Europe.
This is a shame. Local government could be a useful bulwark against excessive central government. When power is diffused it is limited. Localism creates an 'exit-option' similar to the one that exists in the market – if people don't like the policies of their local authority, they can move to another one and take their taxes with them. That creates competitive pressures to keep charges down and improve standards.
Localism also allows for greater experimentation. Councils can learn from each other and move towards better delivering better services. When power is centralized none of this can happen. There is no 'exit-option' short of leaving the country and only one reform can be tried at a time.
Counties should exercise the same powers as the Scottish Parliament.* People often say that local councils are not competent to exercise such powers, and that if they did it would result in a 'postcode lottery'. But I'd say that these powers are precisely the ones that should be left to local government. They couldn't do worse than Whitehall. And besides, centralization has itself given us a 'postcode lottery'. If local authorities were free to tailor polices to local needs, there would probably be less divergence in outcomes than under the one-size-fits-all approach.
* Healthcare and social services, education, housing and planning, transport and local environmental issues, among several others.