The PM’s idea will only work if local government is given real power, says Kevin Hawkins

"Nowhere has democracy worked well without a great measure of local self-government," wrote Friedrich von Hayek. That is exactly what we've not had for the past 40 years.

While the big society rhetoric is imbued with volunteering and community action, it has largely ignored the potential role of local government. Until, that is, the Manchester councillors launched their mini-missile at price competition in the licensed trade. David Cameron hailed it as an example of the big society at work. But is it really?

While one can sympathise with Manchester's wish to do something about alcohol abuse, I suspect they've chosen the wrong route. The issue is whether the apparent legal loophole allowing councils to enact bylaws against "nuisances" extends, in the case of alcohol, to retail price-fixing.

The government, however, may decline to approve the proposed bylaw on the grounds it's already addressing alcohol abuse by prohibiting below-cost selling. In any case, if minimum pricing at national level would contravene competition law as the OFT has already warned the Scottish government why should it be permissible at local level?

What the Mancunians have done, however, is highlight a conundrum in the government's strategy. Cutting departmental budgets by 25% or more means doing less of some things and stopping others altogether. Ministers talk about decentralising some functions hitherto done by Whitehall but what functions and to whom?

Maybe there really is an army of eager volunteers out there ready to spring into action, but, after decades of creeping nanny statism one doubts it. What we do have is a network of local authorities whose autonomy has been eroded to virtually zero by successive governments.

Why? Thanks to the dominance of the Whitehall centralisers in Whitehall and memories of the "loony left" councils of the 1980s, they are no longer trusted with any independent decision-making authority.

Nor have ministers lost their appetite for micro-management. The DH wants to impose a calorie count on restaurant menus. Someone should tell it that for most people a restaurant meal is an occasional treat that they want to enjoy and not feel guilty about.

Power can only be decentralised if ministers pump new life into local government. Otherwise big society will be a big flop.

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.