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Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I welcome this debate on local government. It is timely, as we are currently in the throes of local elections in our towns and cities. I am the first Back Bencher to speak, and as I served as a local councillor for years before I came to this place and have served as a Minister, I would like to move the debate beyond a discussion of council tax settlements in previous years. Wider issues are at stake.
I wish to add a little historical perspective and to push the boundaries forward by offering a vision of local governance that deepens our democracy for the future. It is the vision of increased participation, decision making and provision at a local level which I firmly believe the Government are working towards.
I came into local politics in the mid-1970s, and it is easily forgotten that between 1955 and 1975 local authority expenditure tripled, in constant prices. That led to an assumption of dependency on the centre, with funds based on centre-driven growth year after year.
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Such a mental template became engrained and it has defined the central Government-local government relationship over the past half century.
Today, local authority spending consists of only a quarter of all public expenditure in our neighbourhoods and localities. There has been a fiscal shift and, with it, a change in responsibilities, including the key responsibility of working to eliminate poverty in our neighbourhoods. We must not lose sight of that. The shift in responsibilities means that we must also look at a range of providers that are not limited to local government.
I remind the amnesiacs in the Conservative party of what happened in the early 1980s. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Conservative Government's chaotic approach, and so it was. We did not even have the benefit of annual budgeting, and our budgets were cut by two thirds. I chaired a housing committee at the time and I remember the effect of stopping and aborting programmes. I remember receiving a budget, setting it out, putting out tenders for re-roofing and then being told by the then right hon. Member for Henley, who was Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, "Oh no. Hold up your budgets, and call the tenders back in. We are going to cut the budget halfway through the year." We did what he said, but he then found a bit more money and told us that we had to spend it by 31 December. That meant that the tenders for re-roofing went out in September and the houses had to be re-roofed when the work was least likely to be donein the winter. I am sure that the then Secretary of State was not stupid; it was done deliberately to discredit local government by making it look inefficient and unable to deliver. We had less than annual budgeting, but we have come way long from that, not least in respect of the comprehensive spending reviews introduced by this Government. They are most welcome.
Some of us have long memories of the Conservative Government's contempt for local authorities in principle, and strangulation of their budgets in practice. However, I want to put that row to one side and to suggest more positively that we can look forward to breaking out of the mid-20th century debate about the relations and tensions between central and local government. We are still a little fixated on the axis of that debate, and we need to focus on the project of deepening local democracy, which involves participation and engagement at a local level in our neighbourhoods and communities. We must ask how that relates to the changing roles of local governance, the national state and, increasingly, to the international agencies that make local contributions.
In societies all over the world, local government's role is being rethought. What does it mean in the context of changing welfare states and increased globalisation in our economies? In recent decades, local government's institutions have been changing their structure, systems of operation, political practice and models of service. I recall the establishment of the local ombudsman in 1974. That moved things on. In 1976, the Layfield committee tackled local-central financing arrangements and dealt with the questions of fiscal tension as the centre gave more resources and asked whether local authorities could retain powers over decision making on
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priorities at a local level. As a member of Leeds city council, I submitted to the Widdicombe committee in 1986 evidence that addressed relations between committee structures and local authority service departments.
Under this Government since 1997, we have seen the emphasis shift from providing services alone to taking on the challenges of community leadership and identifying and meeting the needs of local areas in partnership with central Government, with business, with voluntary organisations and, I hope and emphasise, with local peoplea dimension that we must intensify and improve. We need new efforts to encourage flexibility, and the new deal for communitiesto mention just one element introduced by the Governmentencouraged the introduction of the neighbourhood partnerships, which we can build on.
In 2003, the Audit Commission, in its "Comprehensive Performance AssessmentScores and analysis for single tier and county councils", gave most local authorities in Britain positive marks for their overall management and political competence at leadership levels. Best value and better service delivery were making a positive impact, myriads of new partnerships had been established and new local authority executive structures had been adopted with remarkable speed and efficiency. Most had also improved their participation and consultation strategies, but I would suggest that they had started to introduce them.
I want to point out, however, that most of that reform has been in terms of top-down, nationally developed changes. Although initiatives and resources coming down from abovefrom the centreare welcome and necessary, they need to be embraced by initiatives at ground-floor level if we are to reach those whom we sometimes refer to as "hard-to-reach people" and tackle the poverty in inner-city, urban and some rural neighbourhoods. If not, the developing acronymic list of hundreds of separate budgetary initiatives will appear not as welcoming regenerating rain on communities, but as hailstones that hammer down and quickly disappear, leaving people feeling damaged without having understood their impact.
Local government core functions have changed. I suggest that there is a much richer, new complexity of inter-governmental networks and what I would describe as a multi-level of governance, which includes, for example, community safety provision, police and fire authorities, crime and disorder partnerships and drug action teams. On education and skills, we have not just the new learning and skills councils, but colleges of further education, universities and employment action zones, as well as schools and early-years provision. Health and well-being is a new dimension that has emerged in the past 10 years. The primary care trusts that the Government introduced and the Sure Start partnerships are all part of a new multi-mix of integrated local service provision.
Budgets are being blended in new ways, but communities must embrace them so that they understand them and can make them work to serve everyone in the localities. I am trying to suggest that the traditional model of local government, with its key task of delivering services as part of the welfare stateit used
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to be roads, schools and housesfunded from local rates and a central Government grant, has fundamentally shifted.
We have now to consider a new model of networked community governance in our neighbourhoods. That is an invitation to people to participate in building those networks, working with them and delivering services. We need to focus on the needs of local communities, to search out local issues, points of conflict and contact, to develop and work towards local solutions, to reconcile conflicts at a local level and to work across boundaries for more integrated practical solutions. In other words, we need to try to improve the quality of life in our neighbourhoods using a range of services, some of which were not encapsulated in previous central and local government models. That networked community governance is no less susceptible to the conflicts that have always occurred over what we might call "goal definition" or determining local priorities.
I support the Government amendment to the motion, as far as it goes, but I might have added another line, saying "We will continue to look at new and innovative methods of engaging and ensuring local participation." Let me give a practical example. Leeds is now widely acknowledged as one of Britain's most successful cities, but it is not without its inner-city challenges of poverty and social exclusion, including the neighbourhood in which I live. In my constituency, we called people together under the banner of the West Fest conference, inviting them to participate in a consultation process. We are now taking that conference to every corner of every neighbourhood. Its purpose is to engage people, listen and spell out the new complexities of partnerships in multi-level local provision. That includes traditional local government services, but also health services. It involves the police, voluntary groups that provide services for elderly and young people in the neighbourhood, and arts groups and others who provide light entertainment and stimulate imagination in our communities. It involves sports groups who add to the work of the officially provided services by engaging people in activities.
We are experimenting with the development of local people's neighbourhood plans. We say what we need and what we can do together. We must be aware of the complexity of the available services and consider how to knit everything together to meet the needs of the locality, as articulated by the people themselves. Our local councillors in Kirkstall, for example, are involved in a groundbreaking plan for the Kirkstall valley. It will ensure that in the heart of Leedsfrom the city centre, through the inner city and out towards the ring roadwe will have a sustainable, clean, green wedge of parkland, available for local people as a leisure resource. It will cut a swathe through the inner-city neighbourhoods. We are engaging local communities in the design and development of that plan.
The council is restructuring and re-engaging with the people under the new, dynamic leadership of Councillor Keith Wakefield, who seems to spend most of his time on the streets. I do not mean that pejoratively; I mean that he is out and about, listening to people and engaging with them. I emphasise the word "listening", because he is finding out what people's needs are. He is using new methods to try to include people in the delivery of services, because they should be part of that process.
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Out of the West Fest we developed workshops to take into the neighbourhoods on subjects such as local community economic development strategies and social enterprise projects. On the latter point, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) mentioned that the Government had promised things that they had not quite yet delivered. I do not concur, because a Bill on community enterprise is about to come to the House from the other place. I am looking forward to that, because it will enable councils to develop community enterprises so that people can open boarded-up shops and set up businesses in them, employing local people and providing goods and services to the neighbourhood.
We are considering providing local public transport, using minibuses in the neighbourhoods that seem to be beyond the larger bus services. We should use the resources that we have, building them into community services. We can take the process further. We are looking at displacing loan sharks by setting up credit union networks. We are developing local schools as centres where community resources are available, day and night and at weekends.
Local participation models are subtler, more difficult and more complex than others, and we need to develop more ways of coming together, replacing complaining with planning and working together to make decisions for the benefit of our neighbourhoods. They are not easy, quick-fix models. They completely invert the top-down approach of the past, which went from central Government to local government to neighbourhood. We should not be setting at odds community participation, through local meetings, and representational democracy in the form of elected councillors. They should be working together. We need them both, so we must find new ways to integrate the representative democracy model with the participative democracy model, to deepen our understanding and practice of democracy.
Let me add another idea to the notion of new localism, to push it a step further. I ask the Government whether there is any space for experimenting with new ways of delivering services, new forms of accountability and the development of a more enabling local state as well as a more enabling national state. The top-down approach must be related to the bottom-up initiatives. For example, let us look closely at local service delivery. Why should the meals on wheels service for a person in my street come from seven miles away, through all the traffic, to arrive there, perhaps, the day before so that someone has to reheat it? Why cannot meals on wheels for the stuck-at-home elderly come from the same street, from someone who lives in the neighbourhood, trained and paid to deliver that service? What I am saying is: let us decentralise meals on wheels.
Why do we not look at service delivery for care of the elderly, care of the sick and child care, including after-school clubs, in local neighbourhoods? Why do we not think intensely micro and see what we can do to meet the needs of the unemployed, such as training, in communities, particularly in inner-city neighbourhoods? Where in the neighbourhood can we look, in future, for resources to meet local needs and to redevelop and rebuild the basic community? We need more new thinking about the practice of local politics and service delivery, but we also need new systems of local governance to develop that.
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I shall end with two quotations. The first is from what some Members may think is a strange source: a work called "The Great Disruption", by "The End of History" man, Francis Fukuyama. He was talking about engaging people in groups. We know what it is like when we go to a meeting with people who have never been to a meeting before: they shout for what they want, walk out and go back home. We cannot organise community participation on that basis; there must be some vague rules of the game. Fukuyama said:
"If members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, then they will come to trust one another. Trust is like a lubricant that makes the running of any group or organisation more efficient . . . If people can be counted on to keep commitments, honour norms of reciprocity and avoid opportunistic behaviour, then groups will form more readily, and those that do form will be able to achieve common purposes more efficiently."
I know that it is not the done thing in a speech in the House of Commons to recommend a bookit suggests that we might have been reading or misspending our time in the Library. However, in the words of Professor Gerry Stoker from Manchester university, in a seminal book called, "Transforming Local Governance":
"Local government is there to influence the major social and economic dimensions of its locality even if it is not directly responsible for a particular service or policy issue".
"co-ordinated and effective collective action to tackle the everyday issues that matter to people in their localities".
I recommend Professor Gerry Stoker's book, but everyone in Parliament, whatever their political party, should be much more positive about developing and transforming local governance, which we should support, encourage and champion. I would also make a modest exhortation to the Government to do more to address the challenge of enabling more bottom-up participation and development, which could regenerate and reshape our communities in future and ensure that they are inclusive places that we enjoy living in.
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