Devolution of power to local communities has been part of the Liberal creed ever since I joined the party, so I suppose we should welcome Eric Pickles's proposals. However, if I were a trained and qualified librarian I think I should take a dim view of the local library service being handed over to a group of self selected Linda Snells. Liberals have aways understood devolution to imply handing responsibilities and powers (including tax-raising powers) to democratically elected bodies, but neither district nor parish councilors seem to feature largely in the Pickles proposals.
Indeed, rather than enhance the fund-raising powers of councilors the proposals allow council tax demands to be subject to referendums if the citizenry don't like them. In my view referendums should have no part in our system, which is one of representative democracy. We elect MPs and councilors to make decisions on our behalf, using their judgment after having weighed up the pros and cons pertaining to any situation. If we don't like their decisions we choose someone else at the next scheduled election.
The proposal to force 12 areas to hold referendums on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor is doubly flawed. First, how can powers be devolved if central government forces an area to have such a referendum? Surely, under true devolution, each area would be able to make its own decision. Secondly, the concept of a directly elected mayor throws the emphasis away from the reasoned policies of the competing parties on to the personalities of individuals. The growth of prime-ministerial power rather than collective leadership has damaged and weakened government at national level and similar results can be expected at local level if we take the emphasis away from policy and on to the personalities of a few, possibly maverick, individuals.
True, local government at the moment is dull, uninspiring and attracts little interest. It should be revived not though imported gimmicks, but by the introduction of an electoral system that makes voting more meaningful, and the granting of genuinely independent and meaningful powers to elected representatives at local level.