THE BLOG

Clearing the Decks

21/01/2014 09:53 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

One of the smaller announcements that emerged in the middle of the festive season - when most things are missed by pundits and commentators enjoying their Christmas pudding - was that David Cameron has put out an order for the rush to new Garden Cities to be put on hold.

But this was not, we were told in the august pages of the FT, that our prime minister now thought there was a way to solve the British housing crisis without new major settlements being established.

Oh no. It was the fear that naming any area as a potential site for such a place would

instantly upset a whole group of - probably Tory - voters and their MPs. So until after the election, no places are to be announced.

We should get used to this sort of thing. While it may seem ages away to the average disinterested member of the public, for the political class a general election feels like it is now coming down the track fast.

Usually, in the run up to an election, the command goes out from the centre: What are you doing that has a potential downside in terms of votes and few upsides even it if goes right? Once identified, the heat is on.

Do you really need to do this pre-election or can it go into deep freeze for a while? Maybe another consultation paper instead of a White Paper? Or perhaps a pilot to test out the idea in a small area or two instead of a 'national roll-out'?

It may sound cynical - a mild version of the excellent House of Cards that I have been enjoying over Christmas - but it will no doubt be familiar to almost everyone involved in politics at any level and certainly in local politics.

Tax is an obvious candidate. Putting taxes up just before an election rarely makes the punters want to put their cross against your party, and we see across the years and across nations that taxes go up in the year or so after an election and rarely before one.

But the long arm of this law goes much further. Unpopular (for some) policies like a new airport for the South East have already been kicked beyond the next election - to the relief of all parties, not the just the Government - since those West London seats contain a good few potential marginals all round.

Meanwhile, the urgent need to push rail fares above inflation in the earlier part of the parliament to help reduce the national debt seems to have disappeared as prices are now to be pegged to inflation despite the debt ratio still rising.

How and where to draw the line is tricky of course. Take the issue of the contracts that are to be let to help 'Transform Rehabilitation'. Here the Government is being very ambitious. Twenty one contracts will be let across the country to private or not for profit providers to take over the work of looking after released prisoners from probation.

Not only is this in itself a big challenge, with very large savings in public spending envisaged, but the contracts will be on a pretty innovative payment-by-results basis - ie, if fewer re-offend than might have been expected, you get paid more. It's a major change - much of it desirable in that it starts to look after those released after a short sentence when historically they have been left to fend for themselves.

But risk is everywhere in this new, untried, untested project that is still planned to be brought in in one fell swoop - no pilots, no 'some (small) areas going first' routine.

And the deadline is still for the autumn of 2014 as the general election starts to come into view, even to the punters. And if it goes wrong then the results may be quite worrying for the public - prisoners reoffending in nasty ways - in a way that does not quite happen with 'failure' in the Work Programme.

Recent leaks suggest that there are worries indeed on these grounds that the department is aware of.

Of course one might ideally want ministers to keep pursuing the policies they believe in and not run away from them just because there are some risks and we are nearing an election.

But in democratic politics, the will to win elections will always be there and so it is no surprise that the cry for clearing the decks of unpopular or dangerous policies is often made at this stage.

We will have to see how the Government behaves across the board and if Number 10 and Central Office keep their nerve on the rehabilitation contracts.

This article was originally published in the Municipal Journal.