THE LONDON FIRE, LOCAL PEOPLE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

(First published in the Daily Telegraph)

On the inferno in London’s Grenfell Tower on 14 June we know

  • that residents, local people and safety experts had long warned about the state of fire security in this and similar blocks,
  • that known techniques are available that would likely have prevented a fire inside one flat from engulfing the building.

The residents were not heard? We need to understand: Why?

The explanation is no double complex, but in the final analysis the answer must be that residents did not have the power to get their concerns acted upon. It was not that their fears were not known or not valid, but that the step from knowledge to action was not taken.

The reason they did not have power behind their concerns is also no doubt complex, but already on the day after the calamity it was observed that at least part of the reason must be systemic. Better precautions could and should have been taken to secure the block. The fact that such precautions were not taken shows that there is a fault in the system of governance. Decisions that should have been made were not made.

Grenfell Tower is in a borough (Kensington and Chelsea) of about 160 000 people. In a political unit that large, the distance from the little people in the little neighbourhoods up to those who are in charge is a very long. It is hard for any small group to be heard. These residents had people speaking for them in the local council, but that voice was only one of many in a large district and did not carry much weight.

Furthermore, this council, as British local councils generally, is itself bereft of power. Councils have some limited responsibilities which they exercise pretty much as administrative agencies under direction from Whitehall. They are not actually local governments. They manage some local affairs, but they do not represent local populations. In his book The British Constitution, published in 2007, the late Anthony King, concluded: “Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.”

Your local concerns compete with those of others and if yours are to prevail there must be power behind them. This is the iron law of democratic governance. Those who govern deal with the matters they must deal with. Other matters are squeezed out. The people in Grenfell Tower and its neighbourhood did not have political representation because they are a small and peripheral group in a very large district and because the council at the head of that district is not a local government in the business of representing local people.

This absence of local political representation is visible in many areas of British life. In recent years, for example, we have had terrible flood catastrophes. These have also been the result, at least partially, of failures to take precautions. That has resulted, again, from systemic failures in governance. There has been no clearly defined localised responsibility. Local councils have had little and ambiguous authority in the matter. Flood protection throughout the land is the responsibility of Whitehall in London and the national Environment Agency. That’s a long way to go to get someone who is responsible for innumerable rivers to take an interest in yours.

Local populations are at the mercy of such attention as distant authorities may elect to give them. Local councils may by and large do the jobs assigned to them well, but such management is also all they do and can do. They are not attuned to acting as the local population’s representative, and local populations are not attuned to turning to their council for representation. There is not the relationship between council and population that is the fabric of local government. This is reflected in the dismal participation in local elections.

In Britain’s architecture of governance, there is a whole layer missing. There is, as Professor King found, NO LOCAL GOVERNMENT. In the case of Kensington and Chelsea, once a catastrophe outside of the council’s remit hit, such local authority as there was simply disintegrated, first into paralysis and then falling apart in resignations.

The absence of local government is one of several defects in the constitution, in need of urgent repair. This void should be filled with local units of government that are different in two ways from today’s councils. They should be both smaller and have more responsibility. There should be nearness between local people and their authorities and those authorities should have the power and responsibility to give their populations representation.

Our national politicians want us to think that Britain is a well governed country. But it is not. A well governed country has the apparatus to deal with the population’s concerns. In Britain, part of that apparatus is missing. A vital link in the chain of command from people in the localities to governors up high is missing. Britain has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe (devolution notwithstanding, which for local government proper means yet more emasculation). We are on our own in believing it is possible to deliver good governance without local governments. As we have now seen in even the wealthiest borough in the centre of the capital, that is a failing enterprise.

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