Localism - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

7  Conclusion

199. The concept of 'localism' is far from new, nor is it particularly controversial. The Government's commitment to localism and decentralisation of power is therefore welcome. What must distinguish this Government's agenda for localism from those that have preceded it are the actions it proposes to take as a result. In our opinion the actions the Government has set out so far, both in the Localism Bill and in the programmes of individual departments, give an overall impression of inconsistency and incoherence.

200. On key issues, the Government is sending mixed messages or leaving questions unanswered: how far and under what circumstances will Government interfere in matters of strictly local significance? What limits will it set to local variation? Is integration of services at local level a priority for the Government? How will those bodies that the Government wishes to see get involved in service delivery be supported and held accountable, and how far will the state retreat in response? To what extent will all departments contribute, and how will any reluctance on their part be overcome?

201. Lack of clarity about the nature of localism as defined by the Government may have two undesirable consequences. One is that the Government's intentions cannot be reliably interpreted by other stakeholders, who might have equally legitimate interpretations of localism, but find themselves running up against brick walls if their view does not accord with that of the Government. The risk is of substantial wasted effort as communities and councils pursue 'the wrong kind' of localism. The second is that an extraordinarily broad range of Governmental actions might be branded, perhaps carelessly, as 'localist', without any overall guiding philosophy to iron out contradictions, assess priorities, or challenge those government departments least inclined to relinquish meaningful power. At best this may result in creative confusion. At worst it could amount to obfuscation, preventing proper scrutiny of the Government's performance against its own localist ideals. The Government should be explicit about the choices it has made about what type of localism it wants to pursue.

202. Prominent among the unanswered questions is what functions the Government intends to be fulfilled by local authorities. There is a risk that local government becomes simply the rump that remains by default when central government has retained or reassigned the functions it wants to, and communities have taken over the functions they are able to. We consider that councils have roles to play that are not only important, but indispensable in the context of greater devolution of power. Elected local authorities take a broad view across all public services in their area. They can adjudicate between competing interests in the community and protect minority groups where direct democracy would not. It is difficult to see how the 'Big Society' aspects of the Government's vision could come to fruition without local authorities shaping the market for provision, helping new bodies enter that market, and acting as a safety net should any of them fail. Underpinning all these roles is local government's democratic mandate.

203. Dismantling the apparatus of centralised, bureaucratic accountability must have as its corollary a strengthening of local democratic accountability. Transparent and effective processes for arriving at local choices are also needed if there is to be any chance of persuading the public to embrace variations in services. We share the view that periodic local elections are not by themselves sufficient mechanisms for achieving this. However, the new tools the Government is making directly available to communities are too specific to enable communities to express nuanced views on a range of complex issues, beyond the extremes of wishing to take over a service, and answering yes or no to a single referendum question. These mechanisms alone will not allay the fears of those who feel their needs are easily ignored when decisions about services and priorities are made. They need to be supplemented by greater support and development of the role of councils and councillors themselves in promoting democratic participation and holding decision-makers to account. Furthermore, at present there is scant evidence of widespread demand for localism on the part of the public to match the greater supply of opportunities to participate planned by the Government.

204. We have throughout this report made several recommendations referring to the progress report which the Minister for Decentralisation is due to make to the Prime Minister in July 2011. We have already been told that the progress report will refer to the six themes in the Government's Essential guide to decentralisation and the Localism Bill. From the evidence we have received, however, additional themes have emerged—some of them more fundamental than the Government's six—which we wish to see addressed in the progress report. These are: specific responsibilities and powers which have been relinquished and whether ministerial words and deeds have reinforced or undermined the redistribution of responsibility; how the Government's vision for the role of local authorities is reflected by each department's policies; how far individual policies affect the prospects for integration of services at local level; and how new community sector providers will be created, supported and held to account for public service delivery within each department's remit.

205. The Government must set out the ground rules about what matters are to be under the aegis of local agencies, and what levers of power are to be retained by central government departments. If the Government's brand of localism is to be credible, these ground rules will have to reflect a substantial change in the balance of power, and it is preferable that they take a form more durable—and more enforceable—than a policy statement. Subsequently, we expect Ministers to keep to their own rules and refrain from interference in matters that lie within the purview of local agencies. The Government's tolerance for the risk of variations in services—variations not just of type but of quality—and for the failure of community-provided services will be put to the test. Genuine localism brings with it the prospect of councils taking actions which central government deems wrong-headed, unwise, or unreasonable. Genuine democratic accountability comes from allowing local residents rather than central government to be the judges of this. Does the Government have the stomach for this type of localism? We will know by how it acts over the coming years.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 9 June 2011