The choke chain

It is a provocative title, but give me a few minutes and I’ll try and explain why I think there is a worrying trend in policy making.

Why am I comparing a government policy to to a particularly nasty type of canine control? Well, a choke chain gives a dog the sense of freedom, but the owner can at any time pull the chain and bring them to heel.

In the policy version of the choke chain, one part of government gives power to create a policy to another bit of government, but retains a power of oversight and strict, almost self-defeating, conditions. This allows them to argue that they have also passed responsibility to the other party, but I’m going to try and show that this isn’t really the case.

It is probably best to give you some examples early in this one, as without them it can sound pretty theoretical.

As part of their long-ranging (and failing) attempts to reduce the overall benefits bill, one of the measures put forward by DWP was the localisation of Council Tax Benefit. Under the old Council Tax Benefit scheme any household could receive a discount on their Council Tax up to 100% of the bill.  Under the replacement, each individual local authority has been given the ability to design its own Council Tax Support scheme.

Now, councils are often asking for powers to do things. The LGA’s unofficial motto is “Council’s could do this better, just give us the money”. And herein lies the rub, because the government didn’t fund Council Tax Support at the same rate as Council Tax Benefit. In the first year they took a 10% cut.

This meant local authorities had to not only design their own scheme, but that scheme had to cost less than the previous one. What’s more, central government insisted pensioners had to be protected and couldn’t lose one penny compared to the previous scheme.

This was a challenge every local authority had to grapple with. Who is the cut passed on to? Those looking for work? Those in work but on low incomes? Those unable to work due to an illness or disability? Councils could have chosen to put extra resources into Council Tax Support, but where would that money have come from?

At the end of it central government could step back, see the mess and pain the policies had caused and criticise local government for what they themselves have created. They stated they had given away policy making power, but the conditions that they set doomed it to failure (or at least increased hardship for somebody) from the start.

In the second example, I’ll need you to cast your mind all the way back to early 2017. The government at the time, in between Brexit court cases, was compiling a housing White Paper. Every so often there was a flutter of suggestion that policy on the green belt might change. Indeed, in November 2016 Sajid Javid –in front of assembled housebuilders– announced that the Birmingham local plan had been released from department imposed purgatory, even though it used a small amount of green belt land.

The government could have chosen to undertake a review of the greenbelt. It could have issued clear guidance that it would accept greenbelt reductions or replacement across the board, effectively (prepare yourself for the metaphor) unbuttoning the belt one notch. It could have set a clear test for the quality of greenbelt land, removing some of the lower quality scrubland and replacing it with decent land that is worth saving. The rumours persisted, and therefore we must presume so did the discussions in central government, right up until the white paper was published.

Now, I’ve tweeted recently on the green belt and I can understand it isn’t the topic where the most rational and reasonable debates take place. I can only imagine what it is like in central government, particularly between Conservative ministers who represent rural, semi-rural and suburban areas. Actually making a decision on changing the green belt would be brave, but those were the rumours.

The final answer in the white paper was boring and unhelpful: only councils can set their green belt boundaries and they can only change this if they have considered everything else. In essence this was a clarification of the existing policy.

But they added something else: woe betide any council that is considering even Birmingham-style green belt changes, they are unlikely to get the support they require from the Inspector and the Secretary of State unless they can show a lot of their working, catch them on a good day, have support of the local MPs and local planning groups, etc.

So councils have a duty to assess the housing need in their area and set what land should be used to meet it. But with only a very limited power to change greenbelt boundaries all they can do is push harder and harder on every other area (including land that is green field but not green belt), intensifying proposed development and increasing density until something pops. It can look like rearranging the deckchairs.

What central government has retained is the ability to sit in judgement of plans, perhaps occasionally letting the odd very hard case through, but can argue that failures to meet housing need are council’s fault, denying them one thing (a thorough, national review of the green belt) that could make a difference. They can play one council off against another whilst maintaining a holier than thou attitude to green belt use. Local authorities have to make the hard decisions and central government is there to chime in with any criticism for a scheme they have effectively implemented. When councils don’t have enough land for development, this will allow the planning inspectors and Secretary of State to open the floodgates for all “sustainable” development short of green belt use.

That said, and as a postscript to this example, with so many councils now looking at a higher housing need, we could see this issue re-emerging on a national scale, even in conservative areas.

The final example is the most up to date and one of the most fundamental failures of central government to live up to their responsibility. Court after court after court have told the government it needs a clear plan on improving the air we breathe.

With a self imposed election looming central government tried to get out of publishing their detailed plans but eventually had to give something.

Why is this so hard? Well, the only policy many people think will make a difference on congested roads is limiting or charging for vehicle use in the worst areas. So it may be the only option in policy terms, but it is ironically toxic to political popularity. Telling people they cannot drive their cars where they want (or, more accurately cannot drive their cars without being charged for it) is understood politically to be almost anathema to a wide variety of voters.

So what did central government do? Instead of biting the bullet itself it demanded councils come up with a plan, but made it clear that banning or charging for private cars (in particular diesel cars) are the very last thing they want to see. They’ve said they will only accept that if they can be convinced there are no other solutions.

In essence, the government is trying to both insist on the only practicable policy but also prevent it from taking place. They certainly want to be able to criticise anyone brave enough to make a decision that could make a difference. All because they don’t want to be the people to upset car users. This is, I predict, going to lead to more court cases (which even the government will expect to lose), more time wasted playing pass the parcel and more damage to the environment.

Each of these policies on their own are interesting. But as a whole they add up to something concerning. Setting other people up to fail is one thing, and should probably be expected in politics, but the consequences of these policies are, respectively, increased poverty, inadequate housing and environmental destruction.

Pretending to give away power but setting significant and insurmountable conditions, and retaining oversight to stop those brave enough to try and call their bluff, means the most likely outcome is failure. Benefit cuts will be passed on to hard pressed residents, who will then rely on handouts (because reality is complicated), councils will shy away from changes to the green belt , meaning homes either won’t be built or already densely packed areas will become more so, more time will be wasted going backwards and forwards trying to get decent environmental policies that may make a difference.

Right now I would be highly cautious of government ministers bearing gifts. This even goes so far as to be a little cautious of devolution, which to be fair doesn’t usually come with such significant constraints as the policies I have been talking about.

If government is serious about passing policy making power to other groups it also has to be serious about giving them the free hand to make the changes that are required. If it only wants people to implement its decisions (benefit cuts, maintenance of the green belt, limited action on climate change) then it should be honest and open about it.

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