Localism - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

4  Localism without local government?

77. The Minister for Decentralisation described localism as the Government's ethos and decentralisation as the means by which it would be implemented. The New Local Government Network was one of the few organisations from which we took evidence that attempted to draw a distinction between 'localism' and 'decentralisation', saying that the former was about devolution to local government, and the latter about giving power to individuals and communities:

    The two concepts can lead to very different policy conclusions. A localist might be sceptical of free schools because they weaken democratic control over education, while a decentraliser might support the same policy because it appears to give parents more choice. A localist would favour giving councils a large degree of influence over all local public services through area-based budgets, while a decentraliser might prefer to go beyond the council and make services directly accountable to individuals through individual budgets. Such approaches are not necessarily mutually incompatible, but issues of clarity about democratic accountability and coherence across local public services are likely to come to the fore.[152]

We are not necessarily convinced by the attribution of these policy choices to those particular terms, but NLGN were not the only organisation to claim that confusion could arise from pursuing, or appearing to pursue what are two distinct aims.[153] Some of this confusion was felt to arise because of a failure on the part of the Government to be clear about whether its main priority is to devolve power to local authorities or directly to communities, and how the two will relate to each other in practice.[154]

78. Local government consultant Henry Peterson suspected that a long-term cultural divide between Westminster and Whitehall and local authorities contributed to the Government's apparently ambivalent stance. He wrote that

    while the rhetoric of localism has been ramped up, many Ministers and MPs appear still to see locally elected politicians as an insufficiently credible locus for devolved decision-making. […] advocates of local government often struggle to understand why local councils are not seen as the natural option for providing integrated and accountable localism. Following the series of reforms over the past decade, does the quality of decision-making and priority-setting at local level still have to justify itself? Is it notably worse than that at national level? […] Ministers and Whitehall have gained more respect for local government in recent years, but historic perceptions of councillors as 'a bit dim and often self-important' still run deep. As does the prejudice that civil servants possess 'Rolls Royce minds and local government officers motorcyclists' minds'.[155]

79. The rhetoric of 'the Big Society' and the Government's enthusiasm for community activism have given rise to a worry that the Government wishes to "bypass" local government, seeing it as an obstacle to its aims rather than a means to achieving them.[156] Westminster City Council stated that:

    Central government's definition of decentralisation is the devolution of powers to citizens and grass roots organisations. It identifies local government as a barrier to this process, when in fact our democratic accountability makes us central to any model of localism, and enablers of the Big Society. [...] We recognise that decentralisation does not stop at local government level, and we are committed to giving more power to grass roots organisations through the Big Society. What must also be recognised, however, is that local authorities are central to making a decentralised model work, because they are the only locally elected, democratically accountable body. They are the enabler of Big Society and localism, not the barrier that central government suggests.[157]

Professor George Jones accused the Government of "a lack of forethought" in circumventing local representative democracy and seeking to pass decision-making on to other local groups.[158]

80. Several organisations detected inconsistencies across different departments in the degree of trust they appear willing to place in local authorities. Kent County Council argued:

    At present, local government's role in the localism agenda is interpreted differently in each departmental policy; for example the de minimis role for local government in the proposed reforms for education and policing, conflicting with the approach taken in the NHS White paper proposals to increase the role of local government in public health and GP commissioning. These different messages undermine the legitimacy of local authorities to act as enablers of localism, and make their role ambiguous.[159]

Knowsley Borough Council also found the Government's approach to be erratic:

    The different spatial levels of decentralisation across Whitehall departments also precludes a consistent approach. The proposed allocation of NHS budgets to GP consortia is different to the support offered directly to individuals under the Work Programme which is different again to the emergent proposals around business support to be covered at the level of the functional economic area. This is unhelpful at one level and counterproductive at another.[160]

81. Rather than seeking to exploit the representative function of local authorities, the Government believes that "the most obvious way to replace bureaucracy with democracy is through the ballot box".[161] The Localism Bill contains several measures that will expand citizens' recourse to direct democracy. The Bill will require a principal local authority to hold a referendum on a local issue if 5% of more of the electors for the area sign a petition requesting a referendum, or if one or more members of the authority request it, or if the authority passes a resolution to do so. The results of the referendum would not be binding, but a local authority choosing to take no action must publish the reasons for its decision. The Bill allows for the Secretary of State to provide by order that an authority will adopt a directly-elected mayor, an arrangement which the Coalition Government pledged to introduce in the twelve largest English cities outside London. These orders will be followed by an unusual device, a "confirmatory referendum" on the new arrangements. Finally, the Bill provides for binding local referendums in the event that a local authority wishes to raise council tax by an amount deemed to be excessive.

82. The plans for referendums have been criticised—as referendums usually are—on the grounds that they undermine representative democracy and usurp the role of elected representatives in exercising their judgement on complex issues.[162] Cllr Ben Adams of Staffordshire County Council commented, "For me, the referendum is the problem. You elect somebody for four years to make decisions and then can potentially second-guess them every month with a 5% referendum."[163] Simon Parker of NLGN told us that the "potential explosion of direct democracy" will challenge representative democracy, but it is unclear as yet whether it will also weaken the standing of elected councillors:[164]

    No matter how much direct democracy you introduce, you will still need locally-elected councillors to take a strategic view across the area and make trade-offs. Do I think that what the Government want to see happen is stronger locally-elected government? You would have to ask them. It would be good to hear them talk a little more about that role, because I do not think we have heard a great deal from them about strengthening the role of officials elected to local government."[165]

83. Indeed, there is inconsistency across Government in its attitude to direct democracy. Asked if local referendums could apply in the future to policing activities, Home Office Minister Nick Herbert told us:

    The power over a budget, the appointment of a chief constable and setting the plan will rest with the elected police and crime commissioner. The local authorities or directly elected mayors will have an influence in relation to their membership of the police and crime panels. It seems to me that a local referendum could indicate a view, but it could not cut across the power of the police and crime commissioners to do those things according to their mandate and the legal powers we are giving them. I repeat: somebody has to stand up the force, appoint the chief, set the plan and do all the things that relate to the proper governance of policing.[166]

The Government's view of local government's role

84. Some of our witnesses had the impression that the Government had not yet decided what it felt the role of local government should be, and therefore had no clear vision for how it should develop in the long term. Jessica Crowe, Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, argued that "we don't really have a definition of, or a clear agreed consensus on, what local government, as opposed to local administration, is for. I think it's quite difficult to talk about some sort of localism in the absence of that clarity."[167] The Local Government Information Unit set out two possible paths for the future:

    CLG will have to answer the question whether it believes that councils exist not to serve as the local arm of government but as the governmental arm of local communities, not just to deliver services or act as a strategic commissioning agent, but to provide the stage for an ongoing dialogue between people about the places they live in and the power they wield.[168]

Simon Parker, Director of NLGN, told us that in his view the Government's approach "is one of creative destruction; if we shake everything up, local government will be forced to change or risk slowly becoming irrelevant".[169]


85. The boldest move the Government has made to empower local government is the provision in the Localism Bill for a 'general power of competence' for local authorities in England. The power would give councils the ability to act in the same was as an individual person with full capacity, in other words to do anything that is not specifically prohibited by law. The Bill would allow authorities to charge for and trade in services offered under the general power (though not for services they already have a statutory requirement to provide). The power is intended to supersede the wellbeing powers introduced by the Local Government Act 2000 and extended in 2003, which permit principal local authorities to do anything they consider likely to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their areas, unless explicitly prohibited in other legislation.

86. Cllr Stephen Houghton, Leader of Barnsley Council, expressed some scepticism about the extent to which the general power of competence would represent a significant expansion of local authorities' horizons:

    From our perspective, we need to see what the detail of that means. At the moment we have got the power of economic, social and environmental wellbeing. If it does not take it much further than that, there is probably little added value, so the devil is in the detail. [...] I have never particularly had a huge problem with powers. Very often it has been a lack of resources with which we have struggled to get things done. But with environmental wellbeing or the new powers that may be coming, in the end we still need a good lawyer to interpret that for us and see how far we are able to do it. [...] Does the general power of competence that may come out mean we can do what we want with education, adult social care or other services? Clearly, the answer to that is no because Government has its own agenda for that.[170]

Helen Riley, Assistant Chief Executive of Staffordshire County Council, pointed out that the power would not necessarily enable councils to achieve outcomes that depended on partnership with other bodies, if those organisations did not have a similar power.[171]

87. The general power of competence was welcomed by Baroness Eaton, who expressed the hope that it would be less open to legal challenge than the wellbeing powers, although her enthusiasm was tempered by suspicion of the number of occasions in the bill which permit the Secretary of State to intervene.[172] Simon Parker said the power represented "a very important philosophical shift" but that there was a need for "confidence and clarity" about how the power could be used. Existing statute would inevitably limit its scope quite considerably.[173]


88. A further component of the powers those in local government wish to assume is a much greater degree of control over their resources. While flexibility over spending has been increased by the removal of ringfences, the real prize is flexibility in raising funds. Baroness Eaton commented that "if we want true localism, that really would be a time when all money was raised locally in one form or another, whether or not by local taxes."[174] The LGiU and NLGN both named a target figure of at least 50% of funding being raised locally.[175] This, it is argued, would contribute to visible local accountability. Steve Freer of CIPFA said:

    for localism to work really effectively we need to align local decisions with locally raised resources. I think that's when localism works most effectively, because I think that's the arrangement that local people can get their heads around, as it were. They can see who's responsible. They can see where they need to put pressure in order to secure accountability. I think where we have a mixture of local decision taking but resources raised at the national level and allocated to local authorities, sometimes accountability can get quite confused.[176]

89. The Government's 'essential guide' to decentralisation states that "there can be no local innovation without local control of resources".[177] The terms of the review of local government resources were announced by the Government in March 2011. The review, the first phase of which is due to report by July 2011, is to consider how to give local authorities greater financial autonomy, changes that might be made to the business rates system, and how to deliver tax increment financing.[178] The terms of the review made it clear that an important part of the context is the incentivisation of economic growth and regeneration, rather than simply a desire to empower local government. The Government has already made a commitment that businesses will not be subject to locally-imposed increases in taxation that they do not support, and it seems likely that, while councils may be able to retain more of the proceeds of business rates in their area, they will not be given powers to set local rates.

90. It remains to be seen whether the outcome of the review satisfies those who wish to see local government acquire many more options for developing its revenue streams, such as charging and trading, greater borrowing powers, adjusting tax rates and reliefs, and establishing localised banking facilities and credit services.[179] Simon Parker told us that NLGN "would like to see not only more money being raised locally but for that money to come from a much more diverse and buoyant range of sources".[180]

91. We asked the Minister, Greg Clark, whether the Government's brand of decentralisation was primarily about passing power to individuals and communities, or to local government. He argued that decentralising to local government only would constitute "a very crude form of decentralisation":[181]

    The process of decentralisation we have adopted […] is both. It involves transferring powers from central Government to local government, a clear example of that is getting rid of a lot of the ring-fencing. But it also imposes some requirements on local government to transfer powers to communities, so that right to challenge neighbourhood planning in the Localism Bill takes what was, as it were, the monopoly preserve of local government and gives people in communities the power. Therefore, it is both; it is a double deal, if you like. […] Even when we are empowering local communities, for example in neighbourhood planning, I very much see a leadership role for local councillors. […] It would be wrong to see this just as a shift between central and local government. It would be equally wrong completely to ignore local government and put the focus exclusively on individual citizens and communities.[182]

92. So would local government have more or less power, and more or fewer resources at its disposal, in five years' time? The Minister told us that "what they have will be increasingly up to them in a way that it is not at the moment". The general power of competence would be a significant step forward, but "some will choose no doubt to go further than others in terms of innovation". As for resources, the New Homes Bonus and changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy "are about getting more local control of finance". The requirement in the Localism Bill for raises in council tax to be subject to a local referendum was branded as an opportunity for a council to "make the case" for the increase.[183]


93. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, if passed, will introduce directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners. The Commissioners will take over most of the powers of police authorities, and will have responsibility for budgets and for appointing the Chief Constable.[184] The Commissioners will be supported in their duties by newly created Police and Crime Panels, made up of locally-elected councillors and independent and lay members. The Panels' role will include taking a "robust overview" at force level, and ensuring that the Commissioners' decisions "are tested on behalf of the public". The declared aim of the reforms is to improve the local democratic accountability of policing. Minster for Policing Nick Herbert told us that

    Very few people have any idea who the chair of their police authority is. I think that to create that greater visibility will be helpful in allowing people an outlet and somebody to go to, knowing who is responsible, and in turn that that person is responsive to the community because that individual is elected by the community.[185]

94. Although few vigorously defend the existing system of police authorities, opposition to the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners has come from some in the local government sector on the basis that it would be preferable to extend councillors' responsibility to explicitly cover policing. The LGiU, for example "has long campaigned against directly elected police representatives, arguing that local councils and councillors already have an electoral mandate and should be the natural representatives to hold policing to account within communities".[186] Gateshead Council expressed regret that the current model is to be scrapped rather than adapted: "We feel that the key to improved local accountability is to further enhance the relationship between the local authority and the police authority, which could be lost by the appointment of a Police and Crime Commissioner at a broader spatial level".[187]

95. We asked Nick Herbert what his view was of the role of local authorities in the Government's localism agenda. He answered that "I do not see the decentralisation agenda as being purely about returning power to local government".[188] We asked if the establishment of Policing and Crime Commissioners implies a lack of faith in the capacity of local authorities to take on these responsibilities. Mr Herbert responded that this was not an option that had been considered, because police force boundaries and local authority boundaries are not co-terminous: "I do not think anybody wanted to see the break up of forces like the Thames Valley or West Midlands to create smaller units that could be accountable to local authorities".[189] Asked whether each local area should have been allowed to decide for itself how to hold the local police to account, Mr Herbert said

    If we allowed this reform to develop piecemeal across the country, it would raise a question about the interoperability of police forces and the way in which they need to co-operate in relation to things like serious and organised crime. [...] We cannot just cut police forces loose; they are monopoly public bodies. [...] Therefore, it is very important that police forces answer to someone, and there would be a problem in the Home Office deciding where we were able to let go and where not if some forces had stronger local accountability and others did not.[190]

96. Invited to outline what further areas of responsibility or budget may be devolved from their respective departments in the future, Nick Herbert suggested an enhanced role for local authorities in the criminal justice system, and Minister for Employment Chris Grayling responded, "I have no specific additional proposals right now for powers to be handed over to local authorities. That does not mean we would not look at areas in future where we could do more".[191]

97. Major reforms are also underway in the health service. The Health and Social Care Bill would abolish primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, require local authorities to establish 'health and wellbeing boards' to encourage integrated working in health and social care, and establish commissioning consortia of GPs. 'HealthWatch' organisations will replace Local Involvement Networks as the main vehicle for community and patient consultation.

98. Westminster City Council, among others, welcomed the enhanced role for local government in leading strategic thinking on health and wellbeing as set out in the White Paper preceding the Bill, calling it "a key opportunity to further integrate health and social care services to produce efficiencies and a smoother service for patients and clients."[192] One particular strand within the reforms will bolster the powers and influence of local government: councils will be given responsibility for public health improvement. However, as noted above, the resources councils receive to support this new responsiblity will be ring-fenced, in contrast to the direction of travel for other local authority resources.

99. In terms of local democratic accountability for health services other than public health, the reforms do not appear to represent much of an advance. Health and wellbeing boards will be located in local authorities, but their statutory membership includes only one elected councillor. Social Care Minister Paul Burstow MP emphasised that this is the minimum requirement, saying that "the aim is to make sure that [the boards] are led by elected members".[193] Nonetheless, the proposals will arguably result in bodies even less obviously accountable than the soon-to-be abolished police authorities, and the Government is reluctant to prescribe their operation any more closely.[194] Commissioning of health services locally will be the responsibility of GP consortia, which are no more transparent as institutions than the primary care trusts they will replace. While GP consortia will be obliged to co-operate with health and wellbeing boards, there are likely to be issues of co-terminosity, and the LGiU's opinion is that establishing a close working relationship between GPs and councils will depend on "a huge cultural change".[195]

100. The Minister told us that, "for the first time local government will not be just a commentator on commissioning activities of health; it will also be an actor, actively shaping those decisions by commissioning consortia".[196] However Mr Burstow also told us that the option of transferring the responsibilities of primary care trusts to local authorities had been dismissed because the Government's intention was to give more control to clinicians.[197]

101. The Government's attitude to local government is inconsistent, and local authorities' role in localism unclear. A parallel democratic structure is being established for policing, schools are to be further removed from council control, and there are to be binding referendums on council tax increases above a certain level. Assets of the former regional development agencies are to be transferred to central rather than local government or Local Enterprise Partnerships. All these developments imply that the Government may be more interested in circumventing local government than further empowering it. On the other hand, local authorities will have a new general power of competence and new responsibilities for public health. The Government must decide what it wants the role of local authorities to be and how it should develop, what powers they will have and how they will exercise them in relation to other bodies. We recommend that each department set out how it will devolve further powers to local government, and we look forward to seeing clear evidence of this in the Minister for Decentralisation's progress report.

102. The manner in which the general power of competence is interpreted, and the outcome of the local government resource review may hold some answers to this question. The Government has been reluctant thus far to say what the general power of competence is for, telling us that "it is not for Government to say how councils might use the power".[198] However, an answer to that question would be an important indicator of how the Government intends the role of local authorities to develop, as well as giving impetus to local authorities to think more creatively about what they do. We recommend that the Government work with the Local Government Association to set out examples of specific ways in which the general power of competence will enable local authorities to extend their role beyond that conferred by the well-being powers. In particular, it is unclear what activities currently carried out by central government might be taken over by local authorities using the new power. We recommend also that the Government undertake an assessment of the extent to which exercise of the general power of competence will be restricted by existing regulation and statute. If there is in practice little room for local government to expand into, the power is likely to have very minimal impact.

103. Greater financial self-sufficiency for councils is a crucial foundation for localism. If the Government truly wishes to promote far-reaching decentralisation, we expect that the more radical options for reforming local government finance will be considered as part of the resource review. In particular, the case for increasing and broadening the tax and revenue-raising powers of local authorities, and their ability to borrow, must be central to the review. Decisions reached on these matters must be justified in terms of localism.

The value of democratic legitimacy

104. In contrast to the government departments we took evidence from, many of our other witnesses—including, naturally enough, most of the local authorities—put a heavy emphasis on the expanded roles that local government could play in the localism agenda. These witnesses identified the democratic legitimacy of councils as the distinctive characteristic qualifying them to occupy a prime position in a decentralised system.[199] The County Councils Network described local government as "the only partner that can legitimately unite the range of public services in an area—working with other partners in the private and third sector, and leading the delivery of agreed locally-relevant outcomes for local people".[200] Steve Freer of CIPFA argued that accountability is clearest and most effective when focused on a single institution: "That critically for me makes the case for the local authority's leadership role in a locality".[201]

105. The Government's Essential guide to decentralisation and the Localism Bill notes that some people object to the philosophy of localism because they fear a 'postcode lottery' of inequitable services. To this the Government responded that:

    Decentralisation will allow different communities to do different things in different ways to meet their different needs. This will certainly increase variety in service provision. But far from being random—as the word 'lottery' implies—such variation will reflect conscious choices made by local people.[202]

Some believe this perspective will be a hard sell. Lancashire County Council stated:

    Where we differ from traditional localists is that we do not underestimate the public's appetite for strong geographical equity, defined as the same or similar services or level of entitlement from one place to another. It may well be that, under a more localist system, varying levels of provision or service design would be a pure function of political choices which lead to better outcomes due to a locality's particular socio-economic needs or history compared with another's. But localists must take seriously the potential for intense media and public criticism (and its longer-term effects) if service provision falters. Sizeable sections of the media and public remain largely unaware or unconvinced of performance improvements made by councils over the last ten years and have come to expect uniform provision, especially in health care.[203]

The New Local Government Network posited that fear of inequitable provision is the principal reason that "the people of England are deeply ambivalent about devolution of power".[204]

106. However, the majority of our witnesses agreed with the Government about the need to embrace such differences, provided that 'postcode variation' is a legitimate reflection of local people's choices.[205] Eugene Sullivan, Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, said that "the important question under localism would be: is the variation intentional, and is it agreed locally and held accountable locally, or is it just something that happened?"[206] The bodies enacting these choices need to be visible and transparent, and local people need to have effective means of both holding them to account and influencing their decisions.[207] The Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) argued, for example, that fears about inequitable health services largely arise because of the low profile of primary care trusts and the lack of obvious means to influence PCTs' decisions.[208] CfPS' Executive Director, Jessica Crowe, told us:

    A lottery implies that there is no rational basis for the choice that has been made, and I think that if there was a process by which the choice could be made—and, importantly, influenced before it was made—then it would feel less like a lottery for people. [...] I think that it is having that opportunity for influence and being clear about the reasons for a decision that matter. I think that that could be most appropriately done by elected representatives who can be held to account for making that decision, informed by professional advice where that's appropriate.[209]

107. The role of the local authority in legitimising local differences is, therefore, vital. The Runnymede Trust acknowledged that local democracy was not perfect, but was nonetheless a necessary corollary to the extension of local decision-making:

    Making collective decisions suffers from two problems: how to adjudicate competing claims, and how to ensure the resulting decisions are legitimate and accountable. Democratic decision-making institutions are the best way of responding to these difficulties, so currently local authorities and local councillors appear the best institutional mechanism for ensuring accountability. To the extent that local people are not always engaged with these institutions, those decisions will neither accurately reflect everyone's interest, and nor will they be fully accountable. But if we 'localise' service provision or collective decision-making further—and to institutions or people that have no democratic standards—this will not only lead to resentment, but further undermine people's faith in institutions and democracy generally.[210]

The role of local government in supporting localism

108. Councils have practical advantages as engines of localism beyond their democratic mandate. The LGiU pointed out that local authorities "have capacity unlike any other actor in the local state with procurement capabilities, resources, convening power, and a whole area view".[211] NLGN argued that the broad remit of councils, cutting across all public policy at local level, puts them in a unique position to lead collaboration and co-ordination between services.[212]

109. Moreover it cannot be assumed that devolution of power from local government to other local organisations would reduce the role of councils; NLGN posited that such plans in fact "create an important need for local authorities to retain a democratic oversight of these services and to act as convener and facilitator of the myriad of agencies in the field".[213] Even if councils are responsible for less direct service delivery, they will retain responsibility for monitoring the performance of services that are contracted out.[214] Professors George Jones and John Stewart foresaw in the Government's vision of the Big Society the possibility of conflict between competing groups, neglect of deprived areas, domination of community groups by small elites, and abuse of public funds and corruption; local authorities would be best placed, they argued, to safeguard against these eventualities and arbitrate where necessary.[215]

110. The more 'municipalist' of our witnesses called for central government to devolve powers to local government, and then simply leave councils to get on with the task of further devolution to communities.[216] Professor George Jones commented:

    I think it's very bad for central Government to be doing [devolution beyond local government level], to be pressing it, to be sending community activists out to do it. This is a proper role of local government. Indeed, I would say we need a statute that lays a duty on local government to promote this sort of localism. They're the people best able to encourage it and to support it, and to make up for any deficiencies that may happen when you promote it.[217]

111. Local government leaders that we spoke to argued that it will be difficult to stimulate greater civic action or democratic participation without utilising the unique remit and powers of local authorities. Cllr Richard Kemp was asked what would be the risks if central government decided effectively to bypass local authorities and transfer powers directly to communities:

    A massive waste of money. A place like Liverpool has to function as a city for some things, as districts for some, and as neighbourhoods for others. If you simply had a whole series of people in the neighbourhoods they want to talk about, competing for resources without strategy, without direction, you would be chucking money away, in my opinion, and you wouldn't be giving people the service they want. Because a whole series of services that you or I might think are vital wouldn't feature at all. One of the most important things I do as a councillor is to be a corporate parent to children in care. I don't think in 30 years as a councillor anyone's asked me how well I perform that service. Some services just aren't in public understanding, and would drop out and have their resources cut.[218]

112. A large proportion of the local authorities from whom we received evidence were at pains to point out that they consider themselves to be already 'doing' localism. Although, as with central government, there is a problem of definition—leading some to simply label everything that happens in their patch as evidence of localism in action—it is clear that many local authorities do make concerted and creative efforts to engage more deeply with their residents and promote opportunities of the kind that the Government is seeking to introduce through the Localism Bill. Participatory budgeting, community-led planning, area forums, devolved budgets, community partnerships of various designs and community asset transfer were all cited by councils as live examples of localism in action.

113. Many councils allocate budgets to ward councillors for distribution to community groups and maintain area forums which consider decisions at local level or feed local views into decision-making processes.[219] County Durham, for example, described the success of its Area Action Partnerships in involving thousands of residents in decision-making.[220] Staffordshire County Council cited its Neighbourhood Highway Teams, which deal with small maintenance problems that affect the appearance and environment of local areas; the work programme is designed in discussion with community representatives, often parish councils.[221] South Gloucestershire Council attributed an increase in the proportion of residents who feel able to influence decisions in their area to the effective administration of twenty Safer and Stronger Community groups, which encourage communities to get involved in taking action as well as just feeding in their views and concerns.[222]

114. Mark Hebditch, Chair of the Community Partnerships Executive North Dorset, talked about the impact of community views on the Local Development Framework in North Dorset, channelled through four partnerships based around the district's market towns:

    the results of all town and parish consultations have been incorporated. When I read the core strategy I can read words that I know I have written and spoken and this is part of the district council policy. There is no question about it. There is a real influence being brought to bear by people in communities on the way basic core policies, of which planning is one, are formulated to the point where the notion spelt out in the Localism Bill of having 50% support of voters through a referendum to initiate a neighbourhood plan seems totally redundant, indeed subversive of good practice at local level.[223]

115. Cllr David Milsted, leader of the opposition group at North Dorset District Council, told the Committee:

    I think we rather have been getting on with the job [...] over the last four years we have been doing a lot of what is now called localism. [...] One of the questions you asked was, 'Will the Localism Bill make it any easier for your council to do this kind of thing in the future?' I think some aspects of it might have made it a bit easier for us four years ago when we started doing what we have done, particularly the general power of competence. That would have been helpful. But in our particular case, without denigrating the Bill in any way, I do not think it will make an awful lot of difference.[224]

Simon Parker of NLGN commented, "It is certainly right to say that probably there is not much in the Bill that a local authority somewhere is not doing in some way. The question is one of scale. Are we now moving towards turning some good exemplars in some places into a new way of doing governance?"[225]

116. Witnesses from community development organisations and the voluntary sector emphasised that good practice is not followed by all local authorities, and argued that leaving further devolution in the hands of councils would lead to very variable results. Ben Kernighan of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) asserted that "it would be a disaster if power is passed down from national government to local government and gets stuck there".[226] This group of witnesses believed that this second level of devolution, to communities, is one of the ways that the replacement of centralist accountability with local accountability can be made more robust.[227]Alison Seabrooke of the Community Development Foundation reported that

    we have seen evidence of some very good local authorities who've worked with and engaged their local communities, but we also have a significant amount of evidence from local communities that the biggest barrier that they have encountered to date is actually working with their local authorities. […] It's quite difficult in some local authorities to get out of the mindset of, 'We are the democratically elected body to do this work and therefore we know how to deliver policy in the way that we believe we understand our communities'.[228]

Ms Seabrooke also questioned local authorities' estimation of their own suitability as conduits of opinion and community facilitators:

    Just looking at local authorities as the democratically elected body that should know how to deliver the localism agenda is quite contested at a very local community level. For example, a couple of years ago people were talking about democratically elected local members being community leaders. Actually, if you work at a very local, granular level within a community, many people don't know who their local elected member is. Particularly if you're talking about marginalised groups and who they would identify with, it probably isn't their local elected member. Elected members get called into play when people have started to negotiate their way through the local systems and power structures. When you're talking about some of the most disadvantaged communities, they haven't even surfaced at that level yet.[229]

117. We asked the Minister, Greg Clark, why central government was not content to simply leave the job of devolution to communities to local government. He reasoned that central government needed to put safeguards in place to ensure that all councils, not just the best performers, empowered communities:

    I think that imbalance of power between those who have it and those who are excluded from it needs to be addressed. That is why we need a programme of government to make that happen, because unless you do, people, frankly, are pretty pleased to have the power they have. Sometimes you need almost physically to prise their fingers off the levers of power if you are to make that difference. […] It is certainly true that the good councils engage with their communities and often help to nurture and support a very diverse range of civic organisations […] but it needs to be something that is not exceptional or relies just on the good will of the council. I think people should have the right to do things differently.[230]

Localism should not, he said, be "discretionary" for councils.[231]

The challenges of improving local democratic engagement

118. Despite the success stories given to us by councils, there is clearly a demand for greater creativity and rigour in the methods employed by local authorities to involve their residents in influencing services and making decisions.[232] Methods of engagement need to be flexible and imaginative, to change to suit different communities, and to promote dialogue other than at election time.[233] Sarah McAdam of the Commission for Rural Communities urged that town and parish councils not be neglected as avenues for engagement, being "not synonymous with community but very close to community".[234]

119. The accuracy and completeness of the intelligence held by local authorities about local needs is also disputed.[235] The voluntary and community sector (VCS) often has an understanding of local circumstances which is complementary to that of a local authority.[236] These organisations—particularly those led by minority groups—could therefore be utilised by councils as effective brokers for civic engagement as well as sources of insight about community needs.[237] NCVO argued that these roles should be fostered by local government over and above the roles that VCS organisations may play in service delivery.[238]

120. Some minority or special interest groups feel particularly ill-served by current engagement mechanisms.[239] Mencap argued that many people with a learning disability are excluded from the democratic process.[240] Age UK reported that older people were less likely than others to feel they could influence decisions made locally or nationally.[241] The Women's Resource Centre and One North West, an umbrella group for black and minority ethnic community organisations, stated that women's organisations are poorly represented within current local decision-making structures such as Local Strategic Partnerships, and only 0.8% of councillors are BME women.[242] Voice4Change England and Urban Forum argued that "if decision-making is to be devolved to all communities, the mechanisms by which this happens must be more representative".[243] Superficial engagement with no outcomes can be as frustrating as none at all; Dr Rob Berkeley of the Runnymede Trust told us

    there are numerous black and minority ethnic forums up and down and around the country. The people who take part say that they had a very nice afternoon. Whether that actually has left them feeling more involved or more engaged in decision-changing, they are not sure.[244]

121. Witnesses argued that care must be taken to ensure that services are not designed according to the needs of the most articulate or confident in society, or those with the most 'social capital' and resources at their disposal.[245] Professor Michael Chisholm, Professor Steve Leach and Dr Mark Roberts noted that "there is a genuinely held fear, not only amongst councillors, but also amongst residents themselves, that small groups of activists who have little democratic legitimacy within communities may 'capture' local projects and turn them to their advantage."[246] Alison Seabrooke commented that "one of the biggest dangers is that localism will become the playing field for people who know how to work the system".[247]

122. The Community Development Foundation also pointed out that "the needs and demands of local people are based not only on their surrounding environment, but also on their interests, faith, ethnicity and any number of networks and factors that are not necessarily tied to place".[248] If community engagement is pursued primarily through neighbourhood structures, therefore, there is a risk that 'communities of interest' not centred on a particular locality will be overlooked.[249]

123. We asked community development organisations whether they felt that central government ought to insist that local authorities devolve power further, and to prescribe good practice for achieving that. Sarah McAdam of the Commission for Rural Communities acknowledged that such prescription would run counter to the localism agenda, but there did need to be "some very clear expectation" about active engagement with communities.[250] Lorraine Roberts of the London Civic Forum told us that

    there does need to be some degree of requirement, through either carrots or sticks, to provide safeguards to ensure that communities are given the opportunity and the support that they need to engage with the local authorities—to get involved and take part not just in service delivery [...] but also the planning and design.[251]

Witnesses argued that it was important to build the capacity of local communities, and to inform them about practice elswhere in the country, so that they could challenge their local authority if need be about opportunities to influence decision-making.[252]


124. Local authorities will not always be pushing at an open door in their attempts to stimulate greater democratic participation or civic activism, however. NLGN observed that:

    many people are not very inclined to become involved in managing their own local services. Only one-in-ten of us is currently involved in local civic activism. These objections and barriers must be overcome politically before the Coalition Government's vision of a localised and decentralised Britain can become a reality. This is partly about Ministers having an honest debate with the public about the likely impact of localism, but it may also involve a more thoroughgoing renewal of local politics and civic activism. The UK is not yet a nation of localists.[253]

Simon Parker of NLGN considered that the Localism Bill has the potential to stimulate greater democratic participation, but

    we must also recognise that arguably we have had 40 or 50 years of creeping centralisation and disengagement. It will take time to re-engage people […] This is increasing the supply of opportunities to participate. I think the next step is to increase the demand for those opportunities.[254]

South Gloucestershire Council concluded from survey data that "the benefits of localism itself need to be promoted in order to persuade more people to want to get involved".[255]

125. Public interest is more easily piqued by specific issues of very local significance, and especially by threats to services or facilities or a proposed development which they oppose.[256] London Civic Forum noted that individuals coalesce more readily around a local service rather than a political structure: "park user groups, Parent Teacher Associations, and 'keep our library open' campaigns are often strong and effective, whereas many councils find that their local area-based structures struggle to attract large numbers of residents".[257] Local planning issues, parking, community safety and street cleaning may arouse interest, but effective engagement on broader issues may be severely time-limited.

126. Involvement in specific projects can be a first step to more sustained activism. Lorraine Roberts commented that

    people have jobs and they care about that, they have their families and they care about that. That means they can be encouraged to see that those things link into schools, education, the streets they walk their children to schools on, rubbish tipping, all of that sort of thing. [...] In Southwark, we supported a group of young mothers, and one of the problems they had was that they were walking to the nursery, but they were going up an alley that was used largely as a male urinal in the evenings and was particularly unpleasant. From just discussing this they got together, they lobbied the council and got a toilet put at the end of it; from that, they went on.[258]

127. It matters what type of involvement is being sought. Cllr Richard Kemp observed that "most residents are more intelligent than the rest of us; they don't want to spend their evenings in church halls or going to meetings. They'd rather lead their lives".[259] Gemma Bradshaw reported Age UK research on NHS reform proposals that showed that 60% of the older people surveyed agreed that more local decision making was welcome. They also agreed that they would like to be involved in some way; but when asked if they wanted to be on a committee or involved in a consultation, less than 10% of responses were positive.[260]

128. Local authority witnesses argued that the community's willingness to engage is sapped by limits on local powers, such as when council planning decisions are overruled by the Planning Inspectorate.[261] Cllr Ben Adams of Staffordshire County Council hoped that

    If the Localism Bill does nothing else, it will take power and deliver it back to local democratically elected people. When that happens, communities will want to get involved again. The idea at the moment that they go to a planning committee and something is thrown out by that committee and then turned around by a national inspector makes nonsense of local democracy. For me, it is a massive step: we pass the power back, and let things go right or wrong, because people will engage at every level.[262]

Of course, this hope depends on the legislation actually resulting in local elected agencies having greater powers; not a foregone conclusion, as we have discussed above.

129. Willingness and capacity to get involved also vary by area. Professor Chisholm, Professor Leach and Dr Roberts suggested that "the potential for local civic engagement is strongest in areas in which there is already a strong sense of local identity."[263] People living in rural areas are generally more likely than town dwellers to feel a strong identification with their neighbourhood, to feel that they are involved in local decision-making, and to volunteer.[264] Conventional wisdom is that areas of deprivation are less likely to have a culture of active citizenship.[265] However, South Gloucestershire Council reported from their community engagement work that the correlation is not absolute; more influential is a tradition of getting involved and a strong sense of local identity.[266]

How will local authorities have to adapt?

130. If local authorities are to be in the vanguard of localism, therefore, they will have to change, in ways both practical and cultural.[267] In addition to, or in place of, their traditional role as service deliverers, local authorities will have to become commissioners and market-shapers. Rather than trusting solely in the ballot box to involve residents in decision-making, they will have to facilitate participation and build capacity in community groups and neighbourhoods. 'Community development' will become a core task. Cllr Steve Reed explained the change as he saw it:

    If you pursue this model all the way through, the council becomes a big set of tools that supports the community doing the things it needs to do. There will be platforms; there will be compliance that groups need to meet to meet legal requirements, procurement rules that need to be gone through. Recruitment support potentially needs to be given, and IT platforms that they could link into. If you turn the council into platforms of that type, which you want communities to link into, then we need people who are more community facilitators and enablers to link communities in to the support systems they need and also, to some extent, to link the different groups in communities up together. Over time, you develop a different set of competencies that councils will need in order to facilitate the community doing the things it needs, and to facilitate them accessing the resources they need to access to make it happen.[268]

131. Local authorities might find themselves ill-equipped for working differently with the community.[269] NESTA commented that

    local government has traditionally found it difficult to support genuinely local solutions. We know that there are countless community and grass roots organisations and groups that are working towards public outcomes in different and effective ways, but to date it has been unclear how local government is best placed to work with these groups and spread best practice and good ideas.[270]

The Plunkett Foundation noted the "critical enabling role" that should be played by local authorities to support communities in taking action at a very local level, helping them progress quickly through complex and time-consuming tasks such as negotiating the planning system.[271] Action for Market Towns wrote of the importance of "a genuinely enabling culture and approach to partnership working", and listed some of the features of such a culture: "empowerment" is mainstream council activity, championed by elected members and undertaken with diverse communities.

132. New skill sets may be needed.[272] The London Civic Forum (LCF) suggested that council staff should seek secondments and short-term exchanges with the community sector, and receive community development and empowerment training as part of their professional development. LCF suggested that such training should become as standard as equality and diversity training.[273]

133. The role of councillors, particularly backbenchers, may also need some adjustment. Simon Parker predicted that the diversification of service providers would make the job of "elected service managers" redundant.[274] Instead, councillors could develop their roles as "civic entrepreneurs", setting up projects that build the capacity of their communities.[275] Cllr Richard Kemp told us how he saw the role of ward councillors changing in five years' time:

    traditionally councillors would go to the Town Hall, they'd go to the committee. They would raise questions, send emails, write letters. We're asking them to be local community leaders in a much more refined way. If there's a problem with antisocial behaviour in my ward […] the first thing I'd do is get together in my front room the local police sergeant, the youth officer, the parks officer, the person from the school - whoever is relevant to solving that problem. […] we become proactive in our community in a very different way. Some councillors have always done that. Many haven't, so it's a question of bringing people up to that level. Localism means that you can't just do things at the town hall, so that means we have to get involved and show community leadership at a lower level.[276]

Ward councillors may also fulfill the tasks—surely indispensable in a Big Society model of localism—of mediating between different community interests and championing the views of under-represented groups.[277]

134. If variations in local services are to be embraced as the expressions of local choices, the legitimacy of the process by which those choices are made is paramount. Local authorities are accountable at the ballot box. They are visible to local people, and if they are not accessible, they can be punished for that at election time. Their democratic mandate puts them in a uniquely strong position to be leaders of the community, and it is their job to take a whole-area view, adjudicating between competing groups and safeguarding minority interests. As the scope of local decision-making is extended, therefore, the Government must seek to strengthen and support rather than marginalise the role of local authorities.

135. It is obvious however that some local authorities are better than others at engaging with, understanding, and representing their communities. The Government's immediate solution to this is to put in place through the Localism Bill new mechanisms that can be triggered by any community, regardless of whether their council wants it or not. It is our recommendation that, alongside such mechanisms, the Government and the local government sector consider together how to enhance the effectiveness of the democratic tools already at the disposal of communities. While the Government should not be seeking to dictate how councils engage with their communities, it could play a role in promoting standards and skills for effective engagement. This includes working with the Local Government Association to disseminate best practice and explore ways in which elected members can operate effectively within a decentralised system.

152   Ev 263 Back

153   Ev 139 Back

154   Ev 211 Back

155   Ev 148-9 Back

156   Qq 5, 265, Ev 149, 265 Back

157   Ev w67-8 Back

158   Q 66 Back

159   Ev w11 Back

160   Ev w81 Back

161   HM Government, Decentralisation: an essential guide, p.11 Back

162   Ev 228 Back

163   Q 274 Back

164   Q 369 Back

165   Q 376 Back

166   Q 430 Back

167   Q 227 Back

168   Ev 153 Back

169   Q 369 Back

170   Qq 261, 262, 264 Back

171   Q 264 Back

172   Q 337; see also Q 262, Ev w10. Back

173   Q 338 Back

174   Q 381 Back

175   Ev 154 Back

176   Q 227 Back

177   HM Government, Decentralisation: an essential guide, p.5 Back

178   HC Deb, 17 March 2011, col 19WS Back

179   Ev 157, 228 Back

180   Q 378 Back

181   Q 497 Back

182   Qq 483-4 Back

183   Q 490 Back

184   Home Office, Policing in the 21st Century: reconnecting police and the people, Cm 7925, July 2010 Back

185   Q 434 Back

186   Ev 152 Back

187   Ev w66 Back

188   Q 393 Back

189   Q 415 Back

190   Q 418 Back

191   Q 445 Back

192   Ev w68 Back

193   Q 451 Back

194   Q 452 Back

195   Ev 153 Back

196   Q 464 Back

197   Qq 478-9 Back

198   Communities and Local Government Committee, General Power of Competence: written evidence, HC 931, May 2011 Back

199   Ev 138-9, 152, 234, 248 Back

200   Ev w99 Back

201   Q 245 Back

202   HM Government, Decentralisation: an essential guide, p.5 Back

203   Ev 250 Back

204   Ev 263 Back

205   Ev 139, 144, w68 Back

206   Q 233 Back

207   Ev 250 Back

208   Ev 211 Back

209   Q 234 Back

210   Ev 196 Back

211   Ev 152 Back

212   Ev 265 Back

213   Ev 265 Back

214   Ev 251 Back

215   Ev 139 Back

216   Ev 139 Back

217   Q 68 Back

218   Q 11 Back

219   Ev 232 Back

220   Ev w112 Back

221   Ev 233 Back

222   Ev 238 Back

223   Q 285 Back

224   Q 280 Back

225   Q 364 Back

226   Q 133 Back

227   Q 177 Back

228   Qq 177, 181 Back

229   Q 180 Back

230   Qq 493, 494 Back

231   Q 494 Back

232   Ev 194 Back

233   Qq 179, 180, Ev 177-8 Back

234   Q 184 Back

235   Ev 204, w193 Back

236   Qq 154-5 Back

237   Ev 165, 208, w80, w136 Back

238   Ev 161 Back

239   Qq 215, 219 Back

240   Ev 203 Back

241   Ev 199-200 Back

242   Ev w78, w170 Back

243   Ev w220 Back

244   Q 222 Back

245   Ev 196 Back

246   Ev w23 Back

247   Q 193 Back

248   Ev 191 Back

249   Q 194, Ev 247, w169 Back

250   Q 178 Back

251   Q 178 Back

252   Qq 191-3 Back

253   Ev 263 Back

254   Qq 360, 363 Back

255   Ev 237 Back

256   Q 272, Ev w23 Back

257   Ev 177 Back

258   Q 198 Back

259   Q 8 Back

260   Q 219 Back

261   Q 18 Back

262   Q 272 Back

263   Ev w23 Back

264   Q 198, Ev 185 Back

265   Ev 179 Back

266   Ev 240 Back

267   Ev 242 Back

268   Q 15 Back

269   Q 209 Back

270   Ev 183 Back

271   Ev w76 Back

272   Qq 182, 208 Back

273   Ev 178 Back

274   Q 369 Back

275   Q 370 Back

276   Q 13 Back

277   Ev w24, w223 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 9 June 2011