A government that declares new rights for its citizens, without providing them with the resources to enact those rights, is engaged in a defunct form of libertarianism. This is a world where the only job of government is enforcement, playing no role in the distribution of the things that people need.
I argued in a previous blog that some of the UK government’s localism policies, particularly around ‘community rights’, fit this mold. I suggested that in order for these rights to be effective, community groups need ‘greater powers to force the disposal of assets’ and vastly ‘more support and financial resources’. As I dig more and more into this subject I find not only rights without resources, but largely unenforceable rights without resources. This is a kind of plastic libertarianism.
My earlier blog did not attract unanimous support. Friends and colleagues bemoaned it as ‘self-destruction’. They suggested I turn my critical eye to ‘welfare reform’ or ‘public sector cuts’, rather than those policies that actually support community ownership. After all, what is preferable, ineffective rights or no rights at all? I was starting to see their point until I looked into the Right to Reclaim Land. This right enables community groups to force public agencies to sell their disused land ‘to the public at a fair price, for housing or other development’. I asked someone at CLG how many Right to Reclaim Land applications had been made, and how many had been successful. The answer I received provides some vindication for my previous blog.
As of March 2014 the government had received 43 disposal orders under the Right to Reclaim Land. It is telling that all 43 have been rejected by the Secretary of State. When we look at the detail of how this ‘right’ works in practice, it’s easy to why. The right is only enforced if the public landowner, for which the request has been made, has ‘no suitable, consulted upon and publicly tested plans in place or likely to be put in place in an acceptable period’. There is not a public agency in the land that can’t find a piece of paper that says it has a plan.
This ‘right’ is just a PR exercise. It is libertarian rhetoric without the commitment. If the government wants to live up to its grandiose claims about community rights, it has to show it is willing to enforce them, and get ready to back community groups with adequate resources when they are.