29 July 2007

Aim High: Aim Local

A couple of days ago the Government published Aiming High for Young People: a ten year strategy for positive activities — its strategy to transform leisure-time opportunities, activities and support services for young people in England.

Perhaps most interesting, in this new era in which Brown appears to be undoing as much of the Blair legacy as quickly and decisively as he can, is the early admission that "an unintended consequence of Government policies to tackle some serious problems" has been "a culture that has widespread negative perceptions of youth." Thus we had Children's Secretary Ed Balls telling the Daily Mirror that he wants to end the era of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), saying every one that is issued is a "failure".

But, why stop at young people? Why not go the whole hog and accept that the Government's misguided attempts to tackle a whole raft of serious problems have resulted in a devastating series of "unintended consequences" — from its policies on drug use and teenage pregnancies, through NHS and educational "reform", to military action in the Middle East?

If the Prime Minister wanted to make a truly radical break with the past — and give more than just lip-service to "devolving power away from central government" and "pushing power downwards" — then he should apply what the report says about empowerment to all of us, not just young people. After all, it is not just young people who, when given the opportunity to influence services, are more likely to find them attractive and to access and benefit from them. Having devolved to Scotland powers such as education, health, housing, and economic development, there is no reason why these powers couldn't also be devolved to county councils. In one deft stroke, people would have a reason to take local elections seriously again and the whole "West Lothian" question would be resolved. If Wyoming in the States, with a population of just half a million, can manage such powers, there is no reason that even the smallest of our county councils Town hall(Shropshire: 289,000) could not also cope — if only the Government could see its way to trusting the people.

Ah, but therein lies the crucial difference between Labour and Conservative. With Labour — both old and new — the state (or, better still, multinational body) always knows best.