Localism - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

2  Defining localism and its aims

12. On the surface, localism is an uncontroversial concept. The large majority of our witnesses were, with some caveats, appreciative of the Government's intentions, enthused by the prospect of more powers being made available to local authorities, communities, and third sector organisations, and welcoming of more opportunities for citizens to influence how their services are designed and delivered.[14] We took evidence at the outset of our inquiry from local government leaders from all three major parties, who emphasised that there is considerable cross-party consensus on the need for decentralisation.[15] Cllr Richard Kemp, leader of the LGA Liberal Democrats, defined localism as:

    involving people, wherever possible, in the decisions that affect their life, and devolving to officers, members and civil society—that's probably the easiest way to describe it—power to make those decisions at the lowest possible level, so we meet the real needs of local communities and individuals, not the perceived needs of people in Whitehall and town halls.[16]

Cllr Steve Reed, Leader of Labour-controlled Lambeth Council, said

    I think we're looking at equalising the power relationship between the citizen and the state, or between public services and the people who use public services, so that citizens are able to become active shapers, rather than just passive recipients, of services. Localism is about putting in place the mechanisms that allow that transfer of power to happen and have meaning in terms of the services that people receive.[17]

13. Cllr Colin Barrow, Conservative Leader of Westminster City Council, summed up their agreement: "I think we all believe that decisions should be taken as close to the people who are affected by them as possible".[18] This sits comfortably alongside the Department's own declaration that "Our guiding principle is that power should be held at the lowest possible level, whether this is individuals, communities, neighbourhoods, local institutions or local government."[19] These statements reflect the general thrust of the principle of 'subsidiarity'; that decisions should be taken and power exercised at the lowest appropriate level. Decisions affecting a particular area should wherever possible be taken within that area, without interference from higher tiers of government.

14. We asked the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, what international examples the Government had in mind as models for the sort of localism it is seeking to promote. He did not cite a particular country, emphasising instead that the English system is "one of the most centralised" in the world. Mr Clark talked about the greater involvement of communities at local level in planning in the Netherlands, greater community ownership of rewards for development in Denmark, and the freedom of states in the United States; "Wherever you look you come to the ineluctable conclusion that we are very centralised to a dysfunctional extent."[20]

15. We welcome the Government's commitment to localism and decentralisation. We agree with the Government that power in England is currently too centralised, that each community should be able to influence what happens in its locality to a much greater extent, that there has been in the past too much central government interference in the affairs of local authorities, and that public services have been insufficiently accountable to their local populations. In these respects we concur with the conclusions of our predecessors in their report on the balance of power between central and local government.

16. Barnsley Council, however, identified why localism can in fact prove a contentious concept:

    the problem with 'localism' is that like sunshine, no one can be against it, which means that everyone is a 'localist'. But the concept is sufficiently broad so as to invite a number of varying interpretations from a range of people and political parties. Often, this ensures that there is a perpetual sea of uncertainty and structural and functional change, some of which is genuinely supportive of localism, some of which, despite the stated claims, is profoundly not.[21]

The way in which localism is defined, and whether the Government's definition matches that of other actors is, therefore, of crucial importance, but some confusion does exist on this front. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, for example, reported that among frontline voluntary sector organisations, "there seems to be little common agreement on what is defined as local, how this is shaped and by whom."[22]

The Government's definition of localism

Alongside the publication of the Localism Bill in December 2010, DCLG published Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: an essential guide. The purpose of this document, Greg Clark told us, is to make tangible what might otherwise remain "a rather abstract term to which it is easy to pay lip service".[23] It lists six actions for every department and every level of government:

  • To lift the burden of bureaucracy—by removing the cost and control of unnecessary red tape and regulation, whose effect is to restrict local action;
  • To empower communities to do things their way—by creating rights for people to get involved with, and direct the development of, their communities;
  • To increase local control of public finance—so that more of the decisions over how public money is spent and raised can be taken within communities;
  • To diversify the supply of public services—by ending public sector monopolies, ensuring a level playing field for all suppliers, giving people more choice and a better standard of service;
  • To open up government to public scrutiny—by releasing government information into the public domain, so that people can know how their money is spent, how it is used and to what effect; and
  • To strengthen accountability to local people—by giving every citizen the power to change the services provided to them through participation, choice or the ballot box.

17. Some of these actions are ones that have long been identified with the ideas of localism and decentralisation: increasing local control of public finance, creating new avenues for people to affect how their area develops, and increasing accountability at local level. Others appear more tangential; increased transparency might well support localism, for example, but it is a policy aim in its own right whose effect should not only be felt at a local level. The case for diversification of the supply of public services being a policy of purely localist intent and effect is also uncertain. Notably absent from this high-level summary of the main actions to be taken is any mention of local authorities. These are issues to which we will return in later chapters.

18. The terms 'Big Society', 'localism', and 'decentralisation' have been used in conjunction in a variety of contexts by many commentators, and are explicitly linked by the Government.[24] The three core components of the Big Society agenda have been defined by the Government as:[25]

  • Empowering communities: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area;
  • Opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services;
  • Promoting social action: encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active part in society, and promoting more volunteering and philanthropy.

With the addition of "social action", these are elements already familiar from the six actions for decentralisation in the 'essential guide'.

19. We asked the Minister, Greg Clark, how localism, decentralisation and the Big Society relate to each other. He answered:

    They are related. I see localism as the ethos, if you like, to try to do everything at the most local level. I see decentralisation as the way you do that. If you start from a relatively centralised system, you decentralise to achieve that. […] If you do that seriously and comprehensively then I think you move from a position of a very centralised state to something we have called the big society. Therefore, localism is the ethos; decentralisation is the process, and the outcome is the Big Society.[26]

20. Not everyone is convinced that the Big Society and other elements of the decentralisation programme sit comfortably alongside each other, however. Reconciling a desire for greater service integration at local level with an approach expected to lead to a diverse pattern of service provision and community activity may be problematic.[27] This, too, is a theme we will revisit in a later chapter.

21. The Government seems keen for communities and local organisations to take hold of the localism agenda and shape it to their own ends, deliberately therefore shying away from being prescriptive. It stands to reason that localism will look different in each community.[28] Nonetheless, it is surprising that we have not come across a coherent, comprehensive vision of how public services and local democracy will change in response to the Government's agenda. We asked the Minister to sketch out for us what the delivery of public services would look like in his own constituency in five years' time. He responded:

    For a start, I think the county council and borough council—we have a two-tier authority—will be able to distinguish themselves from perhaps their neighbours and do things in different ways. For example, they might choose to target the town of Tunbridge Wells, which has a lot of potential as a tourist destination. It also has a degree of potential in some of the new media centres, so, for example, they could use the powers they will have, whether it is to vary business rates or promote particular aspects of the local economy. They can do that and make a pitch for distinguishing themselves from neighbouring councils. In other words, they are not just a vehicle for delivering services; there can be something more tangibly Tunbridge Wells about it. What I would also hope and expect to see is a much greater engagement and partnership with local communities and voluntary groups. It should be easier for them to access the provision of services. I think it should be less of a situation in which they are dependent on just the grants programme, but those boundaries around the town hall should be chipped away at so there is a greater flow. On planning, for example, I would like to see a good proportion of the neighbourhoods in Tunbridge Wells—the whole constituency, not just the town—express a vision of how they would like their community to be in the future. Therefore, I would like to see greater civic engagement from the grassroots and a greater sense of local difference, I suppose.[29]

We are struck by how little of this depends on any new powers or initiatives being introduced by the Government. With the exception of varying local business rates—on which a decision has not yet been announced—nothing in this description of Tunbridge Wells 2016 could not be achieved by creative local authorities within the existing framework.

22. No more compelling vision was advanced by Baroness Eaton, Chair of the Local Government Association, when we asked her what actions councils have been itching to take, but for a lack of powers or flexibility. Joint contracting between local authorities was one area where she felt the general power of competence might prove useful, but otherwise, "local authorities do not just go down the route of saying, 'This is a major scheme we would like to do but we cannot do it, and it's ready on the shelf,' because it is costly of time and officers' commitments".[30] Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), suggested that local authorities views of what innovations they would like to pursue would develop in response to new permissive powers.[31]

23. For some stakeholders, clarity about what a localist system will look like in practice cannot come soon enough. The business community in particular has expressed its interest in knowing at an early stage how it will be affected.[32] Anxiety on this front is heightened by the speed with which the Government has acted in the name of localism to remove some mechanisms—such as regional spatial strategies and Government Offices for the regions—without deciding on the successor arrangements.[33] Edward Cooke of the British Council of Shopping Centres told us:

    we are not at a point where we can say wholeheartedly that we absolutely support localism in the structure that is to be presented because on the whole we do not know what it will look like. Our main concern is probably in the area of transition. We have had a fairly centralised system of Government over the past number of years. Rapid devolution of decision-making to local level creates a number of issues, not just about clarity of responsibility. We would like to see Government produce some constitutional settlement, or whatever it might be, that really identifies who is responsible for what.[34]

The use of a constitutional settlement to define the relationship between central and local government was one of the proposals advanced by our predecessors in their report on the balance of power between the two levels of government. The Central-Local Concordat and the European Charter of Local Self-Government were the two ready-made solutions suggested; putting either on a statutory footing would help to make concrete an unhelpfully malleable relationship. Our predecessors also recommended that the relationship be overseen by a new joint committee of both Houses of Parliament.

24. The explanations of localism and decentralisation that the Government has thus far provided invoke very diffuse aims from which it is difficult to construct a coherent picture of the end goal. There is little clarity about who will ultimately be responsible for what. Increasing the influence of local decision-making is bound to result in some unpredictable outcomes, but we recommend that the Government undertake to provide a more detailed explanation of the framework within which it envisages such changes taking place and the limits that will be set to central intervention. A constitutional settlement, overseen by a joint committee, could provide such a framework, at least insofar as it relates to the role of local government. We are pleased that our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have been undertaking a more detailed consideration of this topic and we look forward to seeing their conclusions.

Localism in other government departments

25. This somewhat elastic approach to the definition of localism is evident also in the way other government departments describe their contributions to the policy. Every department's business plan includes a Structural Reform Plan with a uniform introduction, which emphasises the Government's commitment to "a power shift, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities". The body of the Department for Work and Pensions' business plan makes far fewer mentions of decentralisation or transparency among its priorities compared to, say, that of the Home Office. We took evidence from the Minister for Employment, Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, and asked him why this was so; he told us "it depends on how you look at localism".[35]

26. DWP provides a good example of how departments are not always going about decentralisation in the ways anticipated or asked for by other stakeholders. One of DWP's biggest priorities since the change of Government has been the re-organisation of welfare-to-work schemes into a single Work Programme. Local authorities have been vocal in their requests for greater powers to tackle worklessness in their areas, arguing that their intimate knowledge of local circumstances could make a decisive difference to the prospects for success. Despite this, the Work Programme is being organised on the basis of regional contracts, an approach characterised by some in the local government sector as strikingly "centralised".[36] Asked which services his council would like to tailor to local services in ways that are not currently possible, Cllr Stephen Houghton, Leader of Barnsley Council, told the Committee that tackling unemployment and worklessness would be a priority:

    The Government's current position is that it will do that through nationally led training provider contracts. All the evidence suggests to us that the best way to tackle worklessness and long-term unemployment is by localising it, working in local communities and personalising services to the unemployed and using that local intelligence, context and need to shape what is being done. That is not what we have got at the moment. Under the national provider contracts, it is left to the contractors to decide what they want to do. We cannot even obtain from those providers any performance information.[37]

Dr Andrew Povey, Leader of Surrey County Council, expressed a similar view about which areas of Whitehall should be challenged to decentralise:

    If I look across Surrey and at where most public expenditure is, I think the piece that is missing from the link is the DWP. [...] If in future you are to concentrate on those particular complex families that cost an enormous amount in all sorts of areas of public expenditure, you need the DWP on board.[38]

Baroness Eaton, Chair of the Local Government Association, told us that DWP had "closed the drawbridge" to local government.[39]

27. We put some of these concerns to Mr Grayling. He explained:

    a number of the welfare reform programmes we have brought forward are national by nature but will clearly be local by implementation. […] Broadly, what we have not done is devolve responsibility to local government. A lot of the delivery of our programmes will be handled through the third sector, the private sector and local community groups. [...] It has been a challenge to find the right balance, because in order to deliver a system of payment by results and the AME/DEL model that uses benefit savings to pay for the cost of the programmes that get people back into work, we have needed to approach overall contracting on a national basis. A number of representations have been made by local authorities to be part of the commissioning process. With respect to all of them, it is just not practical, because in theory we would be trying to work with a very large number of local authorities around the country to put together a complex commissioning process with ultimately one financial path that allows us to access and spend the money. It was simply impractical to try to do it on a fragmented basis.[40]

The Minister's expectation was that the selected providers would form partnerships with councils at local level.[41] However, on our visit to Devon we heard from Torbay Council that only one of the providers which had expressed an interest in the contract for their area had so far made contact with the council.

28. With regard to other DWP priorities, the Minister said that administration of the social fund would be an area in which local government would be heavily involved in the future.[42] However, his expectation was that, rather than seeking to involve local authorities to a greater degree, administration of benefits will be done centrally when the universal credit is introduced: "You could not create a national benefits system but devolve it."[43] Mr Grayling elaborated on his Department's approach to localism:

    I give you one internal example of what I seek to do. I want to devolve much clearer power and responsibility to Jobcentre Plus frontline staff. I want local managers to take far more local initiatives in their own right. In our programmes to try to address some of the employment issues, we are consciously not prescribing from the centre what they should look like and how they should be done; we are leaving local Jobcentre Plus managers to take those decisions and to form local partnerships, whether with employers or local authorities. [...] The localism agenda does not have to be about saying, 'We will take powers and put them in a different organisation'; sometimes it is about saying, 'We will interfere less from the centre.'[44]

He said that the keystone of localism is "more visible decision-making within a community", which could include "greater discretion for the Jobcentre Plus manager who, if I come looking for a job and need to buy a new suit for an interview, has discretion to help me out."[45] This appears to us to be a description of individualisation rather than localism; the response of the service to the client would differ depending on the individual's circumstances, rather than which part of the country they live in. Giving centrally-controlled civil servants or contractors more freedom is not localism but administrative decentralisation.

29. We asked the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, how planned reforms in the health service, specifically the transfer of responsibility for commissioning to general practitioners, fit into a localist framework of giving more power to local councils or to communities. He responded, "It takes away a level of bureaucracy that was unaccountable in strategic health authorities and PCTs and gives much more influence to local people as to which GP they can go to, for example."[46] It seems therefore that accountability within local health services will largely be exercised by patients through their choice of GP, rather than through any more collective, formal or democratically-elected mechanism. But the Minister insisted, "In years to come we will look back to the devolution to GPs as one of the most empowering things we have done for local people."[47]

30. In other departments, flagship policies are more readily identifiable as localism in action. We will return in a later chapter to the question of how new, directly-elected Policing and Crime Commissioners shed light on the Government's attitude to local government, but the clear intent is to enable greater discretion over policing at a sub-national level and to give people a straightforward, democratic means of influencing the service in their area. Local government is to be given new responsibilities for public health, although the grants that accompany these responsibilities will be ring-fenced—a clear inconsistency given the Government's eagerness to remove ring-fences around other items of local government funding.

31. Allowing frontline workers to exercise their professional judgement is good management practice. Facilitating service choice and reducing bureaucracy may be laudable aims in their own right as well. None of these things, however, sits comfortably within a definition of localism. The Government is stretching its uses of the term in too many, sometimes contradictory, directions. Democratic accountability is privileged by some of these developments but not others; local government is integral to some but appears peripheral elsewhere; some policies contribute to integration while others seem likely to entrench silos between services. We will return to these contradictions later in this report.

32. Some policy areas appear to have been granted an exemption from decentralisation. The priorities of the Department for Work and Pensions appear particularly resistant to the arguments for devolving power to local institutions, despite the eagerness of local authorities to be more involved in shaping the response to worklessness in their area. However valid the grounds, such exemptions will necessarily limit the radicalism of the Government's overall vision. They also give the impression that the definition of localism is a matter only of tone and of convenience for the Government as a whole, with each department permitted to ignore localism or to adopt whichever strain of the policy will facilitate its other goals. The views of those outside Government about how the policy should be defined have not obviously been taken into account. We recommend that the Government undertake a formal consultation to gather the views of local government and other stakeholders about what sort of localism they would like to see. The Government did not make time for a white paper and consultation prior to publication of the Localism Bill, but we believe there is merit in such an exercise as it relates to the broader agenda and its application across all policy areas.

33. The Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, described his role to us in December 2010:

    People who have their fingers on the levers of power at the moment often take them off reluctantly. You sometimes need someone to prise them off. [...] This is a response to a commission, from the Prime Minister to me, to make sure that every government department is doing what the coalition set out to do, which is to genuinely remove these silos and ensure that localities—where it makes sense to do so, and there is a good opportunity—have the ability to work together. It is my job to do that. [...] The initial report that I wrote to the Prime Minister set out the actions that we require of every department, and every department now knows what it is required to do. The Prime Minister has asked me to report in the summer of [2011] on what each department is doing radically to decentralise. It has been made very clear to me that that report should show substantial achievements, rather than a work in progress. Every department knows that.[48]

Mr Clark's progress report to the Prime Minister is due in July 2011. The Minister announced his intention to judge departments against the six areas detailed in the 'essential guide', and while he readily acknowledged that "some will do better than others [...] there are leaders and laggards", he was confident that every department would feel a strong pressure to perform well on this, one of the Government's priorities.[49] As to what action he might be able to take in response, he said "I cannot direct [departments] but I would hope to influence them."[50] He also indicated that it is part of his role to share good practice between departments.[51]

34. We welcome the appointment of a Minister for Decentralisation. We expect that it will be part of the Minister's role to bring coherence and a sense of priorities to the Government's localism agenda, and we look forward to the outcome of his first report to the Prime Minister about progress in each department. In the light of the evidence we have received, a clean bill of health for every department would be a surprising outcome. We anticipate taking the opportunity to scrutinise this and subsequent reports, and questioning Ministers on it at future evidence sessions. The response of other departments to the Minister's analysis will be seen as a barometer of both the seriousness with which the Government is pursuing localism, and the capacity of the Department for Communities and Local Government to exert influence within Whitehall. We return to the potential content of the Minister's report in further recommendations.

35. The influence of the Department for Communities and Local Government—and by extension therefore the position of the Minister for Decentralisation within it—has been questioned by some. A recurring theme of the reports of our predecessors in the last Parliament on the performance of that Department was that it needed to make progress towards being a "big hitter" in Whitehall. The evidence presented to this inquiry suggests that the Department is still some way short of achieving the degree of influence which will be necessary to deliver localism consistently across Government. The Cabinet Office, with its clear cross-Government remit and its closeness to the Prime Minister, might appear a more natural, and more influential, home for a Minister with as crucial a role as that of the Minister for Decentralisation.

36. For our part, we are reluctant yet to give up on DCLG as a Department capable of driving the localism agenda across Government. Nevertheless the Minister for Decentralisation will need to make more clearly demonstrable progress in influencing other government departments than he has done so far if questions about his role and his position in DCLG are to be answered positively. If such progress cannot be demonstrated, the Government will need to reflect seriously on whether the role needs to be moved to another, more influential, department such as the Cabinet Office.

Localism and efficiency

37. Support for localism, however defined, is usually founded on one of two grounds: either that localism will produce better services and outcomes, or that establishing government as close to the people as possible is a worthwhile end in itself. The practical argument leans on an expectation of greater service efficiency and effectiveness, whether framed as the strengths of local discretion or the deficiencies of governing from the centre. The advantages of local discretion are thought to be:

  • opportunities to tailor service delivery to local needs and circumstances;[52]
  • decision-makers having better knowledge and understanding of those needs;[53]
  • local co-ordination adding value to services;[54]
  • preventing the waste of resources on ineffective, 'one size fits all' models.[55]

Central government, meanwhile, lacks first-hand knowledge of service delivery, and of local conditions and the concerns of local citizens. Many believe that centralisation stifles innovation and causes councils to neglect their electorate.[56] Professors George Jones and John Stewart argued that decentralisation is necessary to allow national government to focus its resources on issues that can only be dealt with at the national level.[57]

38. Not all our witnesses were convinced that decentralisation is inevitably "the key to more effective public service delivery", however.[58] There has been little research into the impact of decentralisation on the effectiveness of service delivery.[59] Lancashire County Council commented that, while "it is generally assumed that the dynamism of decentralisation is somehow more efficient than the current model",

    Localist arguments may require more robust evidence to counter claims that centralisation generates economies of scale and is therefore inherently more efficient. There is also no clear evidence that decentralised, devolved systems would better target cuts. An obvious objection is that this would bring narrow self-interests to the fore and disadvantage the less 'sharp elbowed' amongst us.[60]

The National Council of Voluntary Organisations cautioned that, as a sole improvement mechanism, localism has its limits: "positive change will not come simply through transferring services from one sector to another or a change in the level at which decisions are taken."[61]

39. Several organisations pointed out that the needs of some client groups would almost certainly be less well-served by a 'hyper-local' system, in which all services were determined at or below the level of the local authority. NASS, an organisation representing voluntary and private sector special schools, argued that regional-level planning is the most efficient way of catering for low-incidence special educational needs; if local authorities attempted to manage their own individual arrangements, bureaucratic costs would undoubtedly escalate.[62] The Women's Resource Centre also felt that an excess of localism could result in duplication and atomisation of services; access to a wider pool of expertise, better partnership working, and consistent access to services regardless of location could all be jeopardised.[63]

40. Ralph Michell, representing the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, added that if commissioning were devolved to too low a level it would become unfeasible to commission effectively for people with low-density needs, and that "the nightmare scenario for a lot of regional or national third-sector organisations is having to deal with hundreds of different commissioners who commission in completely different ways."[64] Cllr Colin Barrow summarised the basis on which decisions could be allocated to different levels of government:

    big organisations do try to systematise things in ways that mean that they don't respond to local difference, so therefore you'll get one solution that will be very efficient to procure. As long as you know that the solution's the right one, it's the best thing to do it centrally. If the solution may be different in different parts of the country, city or area, it's much better to make that decision locally with a group of people who are sitting around in somebody's front room, as you put it, trying to work out how best to do it. They will know how best to do it. They will not want to do it by way of some vast centralised procurement department. They will want to do it local, and local will mean cheap.[65]

41. However, Cllr Barrow also said that "the messy nonsense of democracy" was likely to be a less efficient, if ultimately more satisfactory, way of delivering something than simply "install[ing] civil servants to do the job".[66] 'Efficiency' may have to take a back seat to genuine involvement of local residents and organisations in decision-making and service delivery; the Community Development Foundation noted that "citizen engagement is not without costs, and involving a diverse group of local people can be slower than centralised decision making".[67]

42. The Centre for Public Service Partnerships recalled that

    experiments in local neighbourhood management in the early 1990s were seen as successful by some local people, but also led to some confused accountability and higher costs, partly linked to supporting and building capacity in different community groups, seen as necessary to ensure involvement.[68]

Lorraine Roberts of the London Civic Forum told us, "I don't think that power comes without money, and transferring power into the hands of the community is going to require some resources to make sure that it goes into everyone's hands, so everyone has an opportunity".[69] The need for resources does not end when a group of local people have come together to identify what needs to be done in their area; community plans have to be turned into concrete actions if people are not to be left frustrated.

43. Community enterprises and voluntary sector groups—particularly small ones—will require time, flexibility, support and resources if they are to take on new responsibilities.[70] The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) told us that local authorities would be fearful that "the cost of stimulating the market of community involvement and of supporting it will offset any savings that have been realised through divestment of services and assets".[71] Especially in neighbourhoods where the voluntary sector is currently underdeveloped, the need for capacity-building might place a substantial demand on local authorities. This theme is explored in more detail in Chapter 6.

44. Direct democracy can be costly, too. Cllr Ben Adams of Staffordshire County Council told us:

    We have just had a referendum under the 1970s Local Government Acts, with the support of six town councillors. They got less than 16% of the vote on the referendum and it cost them £14,000. That is not a good way to spend public money and it will not get public support when that is made clear.[72]

45. Opinion is divided about whether it is wise to attempt a decisive shift towards a localist system at the same time as public expenditure is being significantly reduced. Local government consultant Henry Peterson warned that devolving power in such a way as to make local bodies accountable for the consequences of reduced budgets risked "forever associat[ing] greater local autonomy and place-based budgets with much increased austerity".[73] He considered that "a critical window of opportunity has been missed" by not putting in place the expertise, institutional capacity and governance frameworks to support integrated decentralisation when public sector resources were plentiful.[74] Lorraine Roberts of London Civic Forum commented that "propelling localism in an arena of such austerity could be tripping the toddler up before it gets to run".[75]

46. Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network, commented that the localist cause would be harmed "if it is seen as localising the chop". He continued to say that "I do not think that is what will happen because, if I look at what a lot of local authorities are doing, they are starting to look at how they transform their services and how to innovate and do things differently".[76] Councils' ability to do just that in the current context was questioned, however, by Lambeth Council Leader Steve Reed, who told us that the frontloading of reductions in local authority budgets "doesn't give us the space we need to invest to transform".[77]

47. Stian Westlake of NESTA, however, believed that financial crisis in the public sector "could be an opportunity to do things in new ways". He cited the example of Aberdeen City Council, which he said had faced its own financial crisis in the recent past but under strong leadership was able not only to restore its financial position, but to engage more deeply with local communities in the process.[78] Cllr Richard Kemp also thought there was an opportunity to be grasped in less than ideal circumstances: "My view is we shouldn't waste a good financial crisis. Let's use the lack of availability of money to really power change in a way that we haven't been able to for the last 10, 15, 20 years".[79]

48. The Government must be wary of assuming that decentralisation will reduce public sector costs in the short or medium term. It should not be quick to declare localism a failed experiment if efficiency savings do not instantly materialise. Indeed, the chances of localism transforming the way the country is governed may be hampered at the outset by a lack of resources to prime the pump by building community capacity. Localism is a goal worth pursuing no matter what the fiscal circumstances, but realism is needed about how fundamental change will be achieved without resources to support it.

14   For example, Q 216, Ev 198-9. Back

15   Q 3 Back

16   Q 2 Back

17   Q 2 Back

18   Q 2 Back

19   Ev 268 Back

20   Q 487 Back

21   Ev 227 Back

22   Ev 165 Back

23   Q 496 Back

24   Ev 268 Back

25   HM Government, Building a stronger civil society: a strategy for voluntary and community groups, charities and social enterprises, October 2010, p.3 Back

26   Q 482 Back

27   Ev 151, w145 Back

28   Ev 160 Back

29   Q 492 Back

30   Q 343 Back

31   Q 343 Back

32   Ev 168 Back

33   Ev w5 Back

34   Q 162 Back

35   Q 392 Back

36   Ev 152 Back

37   Q 269 Back

38   Q 322 Back

39   Q 381 Back

40   Qq 390, 392, 396 Back

41   Q 400 Back

42   Q 392 Back

43   Q 406 Back

44   Q 403 Back

45   Q 434 Back

46   Q 501 Back

47   Q 502 Back

48   Oral evidence, 21 December 2010, HC 699-i, Q 43 Back

49   Qq 496, 499 Back

50   Q 497 Back

51   Q 499 Back

52   Ev 231, 247 Back

53   Ev 227-8

Ev 231, 247 Back

54   Ev 247 Back

55   Ev 189 Back

56   Ev 138, 156 Back

57   Ev 138 Back

58   Ev 231, w13 Back

59   Ev 138 Back

60   Ev 251 Back

61   Ev 160 Back

62   Ev w17 Back

63   Ev w79 Back

64   Q 135 Back

65   Q 21 Back

66   Q 10 Back

67   Ev 195 Back

68   Ev w215 Back

69   Q 194 Back

70   For example, Ev 242, w76, w145. Back

71   Ev 151 Back

72   Q 274 Back

73   Ev 149 Back

74   Ev 145 Back

75   Q 212 Back

76   Q 367-8 Back

77   Q 23 Back

78   Q 182 Back

79   Q 21 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 9 June 2011