Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Localism: Wake Up And Smell The Coffee

You may assume that the Daily Mail would welcome George Osborne's announcement that Council Tax would be frozen for the second year in a row. In an interesting but perverse article, Ross Clark of the Mail argues that the freeze will lead to councils increasing fees elsewhere. In fact councils will receive the full amount because George Osborne is picking up the slack by using an £800million fund of money left unspent in Whitehall to compensate local authorities for lost revenue. The amount of council expenditure covered by council tax collected varies enormously between authorities. Two London Boroughs illustrate the stark contrast with 34% of Kingston's spending coming from council tax receipts compared to a mere 6% across the way in Tower Hamlets.

The article continues by claiming that Eric Pickle's call for localism has exploded in his face because of councils increasing their parking charges by different amounts. The fact that different councils are responding to the economic climate in different ways is not new and is exactly what would be expected from a truly localised system of local government. What is new is the lack of regulation, inspection and bribery through ring-fenced grants that the previous central government used to flatten out local differences. This stifled so much innovation, and pandered to the lowest common denominator. Councillors acted as branch managers of Whitehall, rather than being able to respond to local challenges and demands.

We have a degree of choice in the education of our children; community schools, academies, Free Schools and the independent sector. The National Health Service has an increasing level of choice for patients but local authorities have remained largely untouched with the occasional tinkering around the edges and the occasional discretionary scraps of funding to give neighbourhoods the impression that they could engage with their local authority in a meaningful way.

Allowing local authorities to make visibly different decisions may startle some people, who then may investigate further and realise how long some things have been allowed to carry on without challenge. Similarly, they may discover some superb examples of innovation that have been hidden from view. Residents can then engage on the basis of full disclosure, voting less on a tribal basis and more on what effect their decision may have on their lives over the following four years. Few people would hand over £5,000 to a travel agent or car salesman without worrying about the details of the holiday or specification of the car that they will receive in return. However, a huge number of people do exactly this with their council tax over the four years of most council administrations.

It was only when councillors in Reading discovered that £1.4million of taxpayers' money had been spent over 12 years funding fulltime union representatives rather than union subscriptions that something was done about it. Sutton taxpayers are still only now beginning to realise that 10% of the entire council tax bill for the Borough was spent on a single building to service schools mainly outside the area whilst significant cuts were made. Such stories are uncovered by a handful of dedicated councillors, residents and local journalists. Greater transparency and local accountability will throw up more examples and eventually stop many more decisions being taken that are simply not in the interests of the taxpayer.

We're used to exercising choice right down to what coffee we buy in the supermarket. When presented with fifty different jars on the shelves, the decision is not always on what is the cheapest. An ethically minded shopper may spend extra on Fairtrade, someone who wants to impress may choose a coffee from a particular area. Most people still end up with the big, safe brands and this will be the case when it comes to voting. However, a choice based on the fact that local representatives will take important decisions close to the people who are most affected, must surely always be the best. Localism can be edgy, especially whilst people adjust to their new responsibilities and to greater accountability, but voters will now know where their local decision makers live and councillors will need to up their game. You cannot have it both ways. It is a case of responsive local government or highly regulated, centralised decision making from Whitehall. So, go local but then shop around. Wake up, smell the coffee and see if there's another brand that suits you better. Maybe that quietly streamlined jar in the corner will have a fuller flavour at a lower cost.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Project Maja - Conservative Social Action in Bangladesh

Politicians too often have an opinion on everything, whilst being light on experience. The Conservative Party have a volunteering programme called Social Action which turns this truism on its head. I joined 35 volunteers, made up of MPs and activists, on a trip to Bangladesh, where we spent a week undertaking four projects in the Sylhet region that will have a significant effect on some of the poorest people in the world.

I helped document the work of BRAC and Sightsavers, two inspirational organisations coming together with the ambitious target of eliminating avoidable blindness in the region by 2013. Our team, led by Nicky Morgan, MP for Loughborough, saw how BRAC were building a network of 'Barefoot Doctors', women who visited each house in a number of villages to offer advice on such medical matters as eye care and family planning. We saw the impressive number of cataract operations that were performed each day and the instant, positive effect that they had on the patients, allowing them to return to work and so provide for their families. It takes 5 minutes to restore someone's sight through a cataract operation at a cost of just £27. We'll continue to work with BRAC to raise the profile of their Vision Bangladesh programme. If you are able to help restore just one person's sight, you can donate via the BRAC website.

Andrew Stephenson MP took a team to a number of schools to teach English, sometimes in classes of 120 children. A calf nonchalantly walking into one of the classes mid-lesson, gave Andrew some material to speak to the children about. Anne Main MP helped to launch a cricket centre and conduct trials for a football team in Sylhet, all under the auspices of the London Tigers, a London-based charity which has grown from strength to strength since developing from a local football team who felt they could give opportunities to disadvantaged Bangladeshi children in London.

The keynote project was working with Islamic Relief on the total refurbishment of the Hazi Muhammed Shafiq High School in Sylhet. 400 children were trying to get an education with no electricity, no fans, no proper toilet facilities a leaking roof and four children sharing each desk. We've remedied this with a little money, generously donated by four successful Sylheti businessmen, and a lot of hard work. The response from the children was worth it alone.

So why do we do it? Shouldn't politicians be chained to their office desks sorting out the deficit? Doesn't charity begin at home? These questions are valid but fail to look at the wider picture. We've spent a small amount of time, making a huge difference to people who have nothing. We have a moral responsibility to help where we can. Such programmes have a knock-on effect in the UK as well. The city of Sylhet has a population of 463,000. The Sylheti population in the UK is around 300,000. There is a well-trodden path of migration between this region and the UK, especially Tower Hamlets in East London. Bangladeshis play an important role in the UK. The vast majority of 'Indian' restaurants in the UK are owned and staffed by Bangladeshis, specifically Sylhetis and the curry industry contributes some £3.5 billion to the UK economy. However, 10% of the GDP of Bangladesh is from remittances, Bangladeshis across the world sending money back to their families. We should welcome Bangladeshis to study and gain experience in the UK, but they should feel that a return to Bangladesh is a realistic and attractive prospect should they wish to do so. Investment and improvement in their own infrastructure, education and health care will help improve the life chances of Bangladeshi people.

We can manage immigration more effectively by not simply waiting to act when people arrive at our borders. Programmes such as this can help. Bangladeshis should not feel that they have to migrate to London to find opportunities for their families. It should be more appealing for people to stay and help develop their own country, something which would be beneficial for both their country and the UK.

The work on this trip went against the grain of handouts and dependency. A Sylheti Member of Parliament, himself educated in Britain, told us that what was needed most was expertise and support, rather than simply dipping into our pockets. In our small contribution, we have given a few people a hand-up and opportunity.

The amazing scenery, the warmth of the people and, yes, the curries, left a massive mark on the group and we would all go back, to a man. Beyond the projects, the earthquake which rocked the Sikkim region of India just one hundred miles away, shook our hotel, leaving one MP to attend an official dinner in her pyjamas. We finished the week with a cricket match against a team of Bangladeshi MPs shown live on TV. I was stumped off a wide first ball. Of course, this was being polite to my hosts. No taxpayers' money was spent on this trip, nor Conservative party funds. Four generous UK-based donors made this all possible and they should serve as a great example of how to remain loyal to the country in which they live, whilst loving the country where they were born.