The Government has announced its intention to instigate a radical devolution of power to local level, giving new powers and opportunities to councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. The Localism Bill embodies some of the specific changes the Government wishes to make to put this into practice, but the Government's agenda is much broader than the measures in the Bill, and implicates all government departments. This inquiry set out to examine the interpretation and implementation of this policy throughout Government, whether the Government's idea of localism is shared by other stakeholders, how local democracy and public service delivery might change in response to this agenda, and what obstacles might exist to those changes.
The principle of localism is not controversial; it commands cross-party support, and we welcome the emphasis that the Government has put on decentralisation. The Government's approach in practice, however, has thus far been marked by inconsistency and incoherence, not helped by a definition of localism that is extremely elastic. This has allowed individual departments to adopt definitions of localism that suit their other policy aims, rather than definitions that are internally consistent or developed in consultation with other stakeholders. Some policy areas remain notably more centralised than others.
The Government has not produced a compelling vision of what its imagined localist future will look like and the functions and responsibilities of the players within it. Greater clarity and certainty is needed. The role of the Minister for Decentralisation promises to bring coherence, rigour and a sense of priorities to the Government's programme for localism; his success in this will be crucial, and closely monitored.
Localism should not be adopted purely as a way to achieve reductions in public sector costs, for it is unclear whether it will be able to deliver this in the short term. It is not certain that the financial benefits of more tailored services will immediately offset losses in efficiencies of scale. Stimulating greater democratic participation and civic activism will carry its own costs if it is to be successful and sustainable.
There is not universal support for the idea that central government should retreat entirely from local affairs, allowing accountability to local people to replace performance monitoring from the centre. In particular, organisations representing vulnerable, marginalised or minority groups argue that these sections of the community need protection that cannot be provided by the current mechanisms of local democratic accountability. These mechanisms must therefore be enhanced and improved. National minimum service standards, in some form, may be necessary. Most importantly, clarity and consistency is needed from the Government about which tier of government will hold which responsibilities, and on what grounds it will intervene at the local level.
Devolution of power both to local government and to local communities are not always compatible aims, and the latter appears to be the Government's priority. The infusion of the Government's pronouncements on localism with 'Big Society' rhetoric implies a diminished, not greater, role for local authorities, and there are differences across government in the level of trust departments appear willing to place in councils. Lacking is any coherent vision for the future role of local authorities. The impact that the general power of competence and the review of local government resources will have are as yet unknown. Without room for local authorities to flex new muscles, little in the Government's agenda would take local authorities much further forward in their ability to influence and shape their areas.
The democratic mandate of local authorities is crucial in securing acceptance of greater variation in services between areas. The broad remit and powers of councils will also make them invaluable in facilitating the kind of low-level civic activism that the Government wishes to promote. Many councils are already engaging effectively with their communities to encourage participation in decision-making, although community development organisations are concerned that not all local authorities at present have the inclination or skills to do this robustly. New roles will need to be developed by elected members, so that, alongside the new tools in the Localism Bill, the tools already available to communities to get involved in shaping their areas become more widely-used and more effective.
The local government sector has consistently sought decentralisation in such a way as to allow the joining up of services at local levelnot just council services but those delivered by other agents such as Jobcentre Plus, health and the police. Various Government policies including reforms of the police, schools and health services threaten to fragment rather than integrate public services at local level. Total Place's successor programme, Community Budgets, is welcome but so far limited; there is no guarantee or even indication at this stage that all government departments will be willing to devolve budgetary control to the extent needed to make it a success. Local authorities should therefore be given a power analogous to the 'community right to bid' in the Localism Bill: a right to challenge central government for the opportunity to deliver services.
The Government has chosen to make diversification of the provider base for public services an important plank of its decentralisation agenda, with one aim being to encourage smaller, community-run groups to participate. Although many such groups exist, their ability or willingness to move into this kind of service provision has not been proven; changes will be needed to standard procurement exercises if they are to compete against other players, and funding cuts threaten to undermine their capacity. The Government's 'Big Society' already exists in many respects, and so realism is needed about the extent to which it can further expand to take on services and functions shed by statutory bodies. If a greater range of service delivery bodies becomes involved, the mechanisms for holding them to account for their use of public money, and for intervention in the case of failure, will need to evolve accordingly.
The Government will have to resist temptation to intervene in local affairsa measure of restraint for which ministers have shown worryingly little appetite thus far. The litmus test of localism will be the Government's reaction to local decisions with which it disagrees. Ministers, civil servants and parliamentarians will all have a part to play if a more localist political culture is to evolve and thrive. A more explicit statement is needed about where the dividing line between a central, light-touch framework and unwarranted interference will be drawn, lest the practice of 'guided localism' become the norm. This would reinforce the impression of mixed messages and unanswered questions about the type of localism the Government wishes to pursue, and how scrupulous it intends to be in living up to its own ideals.