Richard North, 06/08/2020  
 


It is interesting to see the numbers of articles in diverse newspapers attesting to the uselessness of the government's Covid-19 test and trace system, matched by those recounting how local authorities are taking up their own schemes to make up for the shortfalls.

But equally interesting is the government response, fronting Dido Harding to quote tractor production figures, asserting that the scheme is working well. Criticism is water off a duck's back. It has no impact whatsoever. This government does exactly what it pleases.

However, the refusal to countenance greater local authority responsibility in a systematic way seems to be more profound than just a wish to bolster private sector contractors and the next generation of quango queens. It suggests a wholesale antipathy towards local government, as a core value of the Johnson administration.

That much also is evident in the government's latest plan to butcher the local authority planning system, mistakenly paraded by The Times as a Johnsonian effort to "slash red tape".

The idea of deregulation is one that this administration seems to favour, although to treat it as an unalloyed good is a mistake. Most regulations were originally created for a purpose and to remove them without care can give rise to the very problems the regulations were intended to address.

I am absolutely sure that the very last thing on the minds of the tragic city of Beirut at the moment is the relaxation of health and safety law, especially that relating to the storage of explosive material. One might even suppose that there could be a general enthusiasm for more such law, more tightly enforced.

If this is something of an extreme example, it has to be said that, while such a major "accident" as has afflicted Beirut is rare, they do happen from time to time in poorly-regulated communities.

Yet the last time this country suffered a major industrial explosion which caused fatalities in the adjoining community was in 1974 at Flixborough in North Lincolnshire. That we have a raft of legislation specifically aimed at preventing such disasters, has doubtless contributed to our relative safety, one of which is based on EU Directive 96/82/EC of 4 July 2012, the so-called Seveso III Directive, taking its name from the Seveso disaster, which occurred in 1976 in Italy.

This has been transposed into the Control Of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 (COMAH), currently enforced by the HSE, except – it has to be said - for the land-use planning requirements, which are implemented by local authorities.

These planning laws keep hazardous processes well-separated from residential and other vulnerable areas and, one presumes, would have prevented the storage of large quantities of explosive material in a situation similar to that which caused such terrible carnage in Beirut.

To that extent, we as a society can consider ourselves fortunate that we are protected by "red tape", even if it is of EU origin. Doubtless, if the Seveso suite of directives had not been promulgated, the UK government would have produced its own legislation.

By the same token, the obsession with the removal of "red tape" for the sake of it really isn't a good thing. For sure, you can expect a newspaper such as The Guardian to rail against the reduction in controls, which it does in this case, headlining its report: "England's planning reforms will create 'generation of slums'".

In its view, the "biggest shake-up of planning for decades" will dilute democratic oversight, choke off affordable housing and lead to the creation of slum dwellings. The move has already prompted "stinging criticism" from housing charities, planning officers and architects who have warned of a new generation of fast and substandard housing.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has condemned the proposals as disruptive and rushed, saying that 90 percent of planning applications are currently approved. And, as there are already up to one million unbuilt permissions, more relaxed law isn't suddenly going to trigger a massive upsurge in housebuilding.

Bizarrely, for a government which is so keen on reducing red tape, this doesn't apply to the current obsession of Johnson's paramour – climate change. All houses built will have to be "carbon-neutral" by 2050, which means massively increasing building costs and rendering most of them uninhabitable as fresh air ventilation is banished.

For the moment, the proposals are at White Paper stage, which theoretically means that they are open to consultation. But given this government – and British governments generally – "consultation" tends to mean announcing what you are going to do, and then doing it regardless.

Given also the weakness of our current parliament and the inadequacies of most MPs – to say nothing of Johnson's inbuilt majority – we can expect no more than token discussion before the scheme is railroaded through to become the law of the land.

If ever there was a role for the Harrogate Agenda, this is it. Such profound changes should not be the plaything of a narrow group of ideologues but should have the direct approval of the majority of people affected by them, by way of a referendum. There should always be the option of calling a referendum for contentious laws, breaking the grip of the elective dictatorship that this country has become.

However, to have an effective planning system does require an effective (and democratic) local government, and even without these proposals, there are signs that this government is working towards the almost total abolition of local democracy.

This, in an almost Orwellian fashion, is being perpetrated under the guise of "devolution", where two-tier local authorities such as those in North Yorkshire are being amalgamated into the County Council to form one mega-authority of over 600,000 people.

There are in this world over sixty sovereign states with populations of less than 600,000, including Luxembourg, one of the founding members of the EEC, and a full member of the EU in its own right. Anybody who wants to assert that an authority with 600,000 residents is a local authority isn't right in the head.

We saw this with the recent partial Covid-19 "lockdown" in Bradford where, with no notice at all, we were instructed by the incumbent in Downing Street that we could no longer have visitors. By "Bradford", of course, he meant the Metropolitan District of Bradford – an abortion of an administrative area which encompasses a population of near half a million.

The thing is that, although I am forced to pay my council tax to this council, I don't live in Bradford, any more than do the people of Queensbury, Keighley, Bingley and Shipley. I live in an urban village called Wibsey to the south of the city, which actually predates Bradford as an independent settlement. The instruction was ignored.

To that extent, the foundation of democratic consent, and the respect for the law, rests with strong, healthy local government. Authority should not be seen as a remote, detached entity which hands down instructions and periodically demands large chunks of money. Destroy local government and you set down the path of destroying the very essence of government.

As with so many things, this government doesn't seem to have the first idea of what it is doing. In its own way, though, it could prove to be more destructive than the 2,700 tons of Ammonium Nitrate in Beirut Port. With its incompetence on Covid-19, it's already killed far more people.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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