Thursday, October 26, 2006

What might the French teach the British about local government reform?

French local government at its lowest tier successfully gives local communities some real powers. This is not the case in Britain. There is speculation today about further changes to local government in England ahead of Ruth Kelly’s announcement of a White Paper.

In contrast to France’s structured system, the British one is a shambolic muddle. A typical fudge some would say. We have some unitary counties, some two-tier counties which also have district, borough or city councils, some unitary cities, some metropolitan boroughs (or have they gone now?), some elected mayors and a unique system in London with an elected assembly and a separately elected mayor.

Right down at the lowest tier a few areas have parish or town councils but most don’t. Where such bodies exist they have hardly any power and only tiny budgets. In contrast in France the Communes do have sizeable budgets and real powers. But most of them are pretty small; out of over 35,000 only 52 have more than 100,000 inhabitants, the average is about 1,700. Even Paris counts as a commune, with about two million inhabitants, but, like the other big cities, it is further sub-divided into Arrondissements.

Above that very local level, which is responsible for all those lovely pots of geraniums and the like in French traffic calming features, are 99 Départements roughly equivalent to English counties and above them are 26 Régions. By contrast with the communes, these seem to have no real autonomy but are there to run services as decreed by the state.

According to Jean Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s interesting book ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’, from where I gleaned most of these numbers, the whole system is specifically designed to stop the State breaking up and to keep power firmly at its centre. Even Paris has few real powers, ironic because the State’s power is nearly all housed in Paris.

Will Britain ever achieve such a structured system? I doubt it. Most countries that have these sorts of systems have been invaded and/or had revolutions and/or emerged from fascist or communist dictatorships in the twentieth century. By contrast the British system has evolved over centuries. It gets tinkered with from time to time of course. Apart from the establishment of the GLC in the 1960s, the 1974 tinkering is the first I can really remember and many of its creations (such as the county of Avon) have already been swept away.

I wish we could get a really strong system of really local councils to replace the pretty hopeless districts and boroughs etc (which are too big to be local but too small to be very influential). But I don’t think we ever will and we’ll have to put up with ‘postcode lotteries’ when it comes to services such as recycling, forever...

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