One of the very worst Acts passed by a post-war Conservative Government, second only to the European Communities Act 1972, was the Local Government Act of that same year which has done so much to distance the citizen from local administration and contribute significantly to the disjuncture between governed and governing.

Sir Simon Jenkins, of whom I am not normally much of a fan, not least because of his ignorant and bigoted attacks on the legal profession in the 1990s, wrote of this topic last weekend in the Sunday Times and made a very good point about the nature of local government in the UK and its relationship to the decline between the citizen and the state:

In democracies across Europe and North America millions of people feel a duty to public affairs. This is through elected local government, to which Brown and his ministers are adamantly opposed as reducing central control. The resulting democratic deficit is yawning. In France there is roughly one elected official for every 100 voters and in Germany one for every 250. In these countries local mayors and councillors are known by name and often in person to the overwhelming majority of voters. In Britain the figure is one elected person for every 2,600 voters and few can name any local community leader, let alone one to whom they might turn in trouble.

The smallest unit of democratic administration in France, the commune, covers an average of 1,500 people, in Germany 5,000 and America 7,000. The equivalent figure in Britain is 118,000 and the Brown government wants that size to increase under “unitary” authorities, thus removing government still further from voters and consumers. It is no surprise that ever fewer people want to be patronised in this way.

Local party activism is integral to the web of public service, patronage and interest on which accountable democracy depends. Its decay has not only driven British politics to rely ever more heavily on charisma, it has also made British public administration incompetent. Power is exerted by central oligarchies, with parties as no more than cliques of London-based politicians and advisers whose bond is to have been at university together.

I remember the coming into force of the 1972 Act for I then lived in the ancient county of Huntingdonshire which had been in existence for the best part of a thousand years. Suddenly it was effaced from the map and became part of Cambridgeshire. This neatly coincided with the earlier destruction of Huntingdonshire’s Police Force under the Police Act 1964 when it had been merged with the Cambridgeshire Force to produce an abomination called ‘Mid-Anglia Police’ a name which had no other manifestation and thus belonged to nobody.

Many local councillors who had served on the old county, urban or rural district councils, some since the war, stood down at this time. Some felt they had done their bit and were not inclined to learn new ways and make new alliances within brand new councils; others were disinclined to make the much longer journey to Cambridge for the county council which had previously, from any point in Huntingdonshire, had been just down the road. There was an immediate sense of diminished local representation and a loss of contact with those representing us. This mirrored what had happened in 1965 when the new police force came into being: it was noticeable how that event brought the rapid disappearance of the village policemen which had hitherto been a fixture. The village where we first lived had a Police Sergeant as its village bobby!

I am sure that Simon Jenkins has hit upon an important point. A really radical Tory government of the future wanting to go for ‘small’ government could do a lot worse than promise to devolve as much state activity as it could as close as it possible to the individual elector. Central government would only have responsibility for a small number of matters which can only be dealt with at a national level, such as defence and foreign affairs but as much as 75% of all central government functions could and should be so devolved. In this process the aim should be to produce councils serving a few thousand people at most. Tories complain about Gordon brown/s micro-managing obsession: here would be a chnce to put that sort of thing beyond him.

One is provoked into this by this report in today’s Telegraph which shows how Gordon Brown has devised yet another way of devolving revenue raising to anyone but the government, with the suggestion that the central government grant to local government be reduced and local councils thus be forced to raise even more money by way of council tax. No commensurate increase in local government power is envisaged, however, so that the little that gets done by your local council will now cost you an arm and two legs instead of an arm and a leg. This is calculated to take the heat off the Treasury and throw all the opprobrium onto local councils, who are mostly now either Tory, Lib ‘Dem’ or under no overall control, so the opposition gets fixed with the blame.

In devolving local government back to its citizens, the Tories could also earn some brownie points, if that is not now an unfortunate phrase, by restoring names and entities that were lost such as the Ridings of Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Cumberland and Westmorland. Turnouts for local elections would improve and the cost of it all would also decline as voters became inclined to dispense with councils that did not get value for their money. One might also begin to know who your local councillor is and, with the return of the Mayor, have a real local leader with whom voters might actually identify. Modern local councillors are, I am sure, conscientious and hard-working: but they do not today have any real power, which is why turnout has slipped into the 20-30% range. If they had real power and real authority and was really local so that one might recognise one mayor or councillor out shopping, then we would feel the local council really belongs to us. As it is I have no idea who my county or borough councillor is or what they do, save that it is expensive.

The political elite and the Sir Humphreys would doubtless hate it. Their pain would be our pleasure.