As a village boy born and bred, I was excited to hear David Cameron is planning to give villages the power to commission certain public services. It seems only right a place with one pub, a church, no shop and a lot of grass should be able to choose different service providers than a place with loads of shops, busy roads and 24-hour nightclubs.
The philosophy of the Prime Minister’s Open Public Service whitepaper is sound (provided you take them as writ). But nevertheless, I think they could be disastrous.
The problem is that while villagers want to be able to choose the services they need, and believe emphatically they are the best people to decide, they are the last people capable of doing so. And here’s why.
- They like to moan.
It’s a well-worn cliché, but true. We may shout about the bus turning up 10 minutes late, but secretly the chance to vent frustration over it is like a luxurious Mediterranean spa treatment. That is fine when the target of those frustrations is sat in their town hall office. But it’s a big issue if Norman from next-door now manages the bus service.
- They all have a different opinion.
Members of my village have long been conducting a pilot programme to see how effective they would be at handling public services. It’s what I like to call: “The never-ending discussion between the world and their wife about the size, colour, purpose and sturdiness of the bin, the other bin and the miscellaneous bin”. Everybody wants a different combination of bins. Or a different size. Or a different routine for collection. While the Council could probably improve the system, it’s manageable. Give the power to the people and it’ll be mayhem.
- They’re not procurement professionals.
Prioritising services by importance, cost and practicality is a job that requires skill, experience and commitment. There needs to be somebody to realise that while 150 villagers profess an urgent need for a statue of the Duchess of Cambridge in the park, the need for a publicly funded bus to the supermarket for the less-able members of society is far greater and far more worthwhile.
In an ideal world, Cameron’s proposals would be a blessing, but this is the real world. Village communities already have more than enough to be getting on with – like making the rules to the Victoria Sponge contest more transparent.