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.
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.
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.
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? [
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'.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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".
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 criticisedas
referendums usually areon the grounds that they undermine
representative democracy and usurp the role of elected representatives
in exercising their judgement on complex issues.
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."
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:
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."
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
The Government's view of local
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."
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.
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".
THE GENERAL POWER OF COMPETENCE
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
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.
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
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.
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.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT RESOURCES
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
LGiU and NLGN both named a target figure of at least 50% of funding
being raised locally.
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.
89. The Government's 'essential guide' to decentralisation
states that "there can be no local innovation without local
control of resources".
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
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.
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".
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":
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. [
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
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
HOW DO THE POLICIES OF OTHER DEPARTMENTS
REFLECT THE GOVERNMENT'S VISION FOR LOCAL AUTHORITIES?
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.
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.
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".
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".
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".
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".
Asked whether each local area should have been allowed to decide
for itself how to hold the local police to account, Mr Herbert
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.
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".
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
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."
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
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
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.
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".
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".
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.
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".
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 witnessesincluding,
naturally enough, most of the local authoritiesput 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.
The County Councils Network described local government as "the
only partner that can legitimately unite the range of public services
in an areaworking with other partners in the private and
third sector, and leading the delivery of agreed locally-relevant
outcomes for local people".
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".
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 randomas the word 'lottery' impliessuch
variation will reflect conscious choices made by local people.
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
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".
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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 madeand, importantly,
influenced before it was madethen 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.
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
furtherand to institutions or people that have no democratic
standardsthis will not only lead to resentment, but further
undermine people's faith in institutions and democracy generally.
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".
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.
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".
Even if councils are responsible for less direct service delivery,
they will retain responsibility for monitoring the performance
of services that are contracted out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 definitionleading
some to simply label everything that happens in their patch as
evidence of localism in actionit 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
County Durham, for example, described the success of its Area
Action Partnerships in involving thousands of residents in decision-making.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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.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'.
Ms Seabrooke also questioned local authorities' estimation
of their own suitability as conduits of opinion and community
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.
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.
Localism should not, he said, be "discretionary"
The challenges of improving local
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.
Methods of engagement need to be flexible and imaginative, to
change to suit different communities, and to promote dialogue
other than at election time.
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".
119. The accuracy and completeness of the intelligence
held by local authorities about local needs is also disputed.
The voluntary and community sector (VCS) often has an understanding
of local circumstances which is complementary to that of a local
organisationsparticularly those led by minority groupscould
therefore be utilised by councils as effective brokers for civic
engagement as well as sources of insight about community needs.
NCVO argued that these roles should be fostered by local government
over and above the roles that VCS organisations may play in service
120. Some minority or special interest groups feel
particularly ill-served by current engagement mechanisms.
Mencap argued that many people with a learning disability are
excluded from the democratic process.
Age UK reported that older people were less likely than others
to feel they could influence decisions made locally or nationally.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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."
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".
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".
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.
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.
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 authoritiesto get involved
and take part not just in service delivery [...] but also the
planning and design.
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.
THE PUBLIC'S WILLINGNESS TO PARTICIPATE
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.
Simon Parker of NLGN considered that the Localism
Bill has the potential to stimulate greater democratic participation,
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.
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".
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.
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".
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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."
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
wisdom is that areas of deprivation are less likely to have a
culture of active citizenship.
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
How will local authorities have
130. If local authorities are to be in the vanguard
of localism, therefore, they will have to change, in ways both
practical and cultural.
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.
131. Local authorities might find themselves ill-equipped
for working differently with the community.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Instead, councillors could develop their roles as "civic
entrepreneurs", setting up projects that build the capacity
of their communities.
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.
Ward councillors may also fulfill the taskssurely
indispensable in a Big Society model of localismof mediating
between different community interests and championing the views
of under-represented groups.
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
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