Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

1  Introduction

1. Inquiries by Select Committees and other bodies in recent decades have concluded that the balance of power between central and local government is skewed towards central government and that this needs to be addressed. However, none of these conclusions—from the 1996 Rebuilding Trust report from the House of Lords Committee on Relations Between Central and Local Government,[2] the Communities and Local Government Committee's 2009 report, The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government[3] to the 2009 Localis report, With a Little Help From Our Friends: International Lessons for English Local Government— have found much favour with the Government of the day, or within Whitehall. Those reports have, quite literally, sat on the shelf. However, new factors are at play—the Government's commitment to localism, the desires of local government itself, and the debate on the future of Scotland—and we are optimistic about this issue being seriously debated and action resulting.

2. In December 2012, the Government published a report written by Greg Clark MP, that assessed the Government's progress on decentralisation thus far. The report highlighted that while Government had made some important moves towards decentralisation, such as the Localism Act 2011 and the City Deals, there was more work to be done, particularly in getting Whitehall departments to devolve power to local communities. The report stated:

Decentralisation starts with the realisation that government—at every level—is not infallible...The important thing is that as well as maintaining the pace of change, we should be willing to learn from the experience of those to whom power is devolved and make decentralisation the genuinely co-operative process that it should be.[4]

3. The most recent attempt to rebalance the relationship between central and local government has been Lord Heseltine's review, No stone unturned for growth, which set out a range of options for central and local government to work together to boost economic growth. The report stated: "Not only have we disempowered local government by centralising power and funding, but the English system of local government remains overly complex and inefficient".[5] The Government will respond in full to the Heseltine review in 2013.

4. We launched our inquiry into The prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government in October 2010 with the aim of addressing England's democratic deficit. We held six oral evidence sessions with 15 witnesses from local government, academia and think tanks and received overwhelming evidence that local government could be a more effective and efficient arm of government, if only central government laid the foundations on which an independent local government could reach its full potential as a governing institution.

5. Rather than report our conclusions at that stage, we decided to explore whether an appetite for codification existed. We sought academic support to draw up an illustrative draft code to set out the relationship between central and local government. The proposed draft code would only cover the relationship between central government and local government in England, as local government matters are devolved in the other three parts of the Union. Professor Colin Copus of de Montfort University agreed to take on the work of drafting a code.

6. In March 2011, we wrote to all those who had given oral evidence to the inquiry so far asking for their views on the draft code for relations between central and local government. Suggested revisions were received and incorporated by Professor Copus into the draft code. The revised version of the draft code was published for wider public consultation in February 2012.

7. Our consultation on the draft code ran from February to November 2012, to enable councils and others to carry out proper scrutiny. We contacted every council leader and local authority chief executive in England's 326 councils to make them aware of the draft code and to request their comments. We received 99 responses to the consultation. Some 34 responses were from councils, 23 from individual councillors or mayors, seven from local authority officials and the remainder from academics, think tanks, membership associations and members of the public. This was a record number of responses for our Committee. Mansfield District Council, Wakefield Council and Havering Borough even deliberated on our code in a meeting of the full council. We also looked at international comparators when formulating our proposals for greater autonomy for local government. We are grateful to all those who responded: their thoughts and suggestions have both significantly improved our understanding of the many challenges that local government faces during this time of austerity, and helped to hone the key principles within the draft code. We are a cross-party Committee and our consultation considered views from all the main parties.

8. Alongside our consultation there has been an exercise to raise awareness of the possibilities for a more independent local government, in conjunction with the Local Government Association (LGA). In March 2012, the LGA and the Committee co-funded a pamphlet, Independence from the centre: does local government's freedom lie in a new constitutional settlement?, to raise awareness of the consultation on the draft code. The pamphlet appeared as an insert in the Municipal Journal, a local government publication with a circulation of 8,000.

9. Awareness-raising events have included a debate on whether the code was local government's Magna Carta, which took place on 29 February 2012, with Lord Tyler, Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform; the Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government; and Councillor Robert Light, LGA Deputy Chairman and Leader of the Conservatives, Kirklees Council. Joey Jones, Deputy Political Editor, Sky News, was the chair of the panel.

10. The Chair and the LGA also hosted a number of well attended awareness-raising events across England, including a series of fringe meetings at each of the party conferences and the LGA conference in 2012. We extend our thanks to the LGA, and in particular its Chair, Sir Merrick Cockell, for all the hard work they have put into supporting and promoting the draft code during the past year. This has enabled us to hear the views of far more local councillors than would otherwise have been the case. We are also grateful to the LGA for their assistance with other aspects of the inquiry.

11. After the conclusion of the public consultation, Professor Copus analysed the consultation submissions and presented us with a further revised version of the draft code, which addressed the concerns raised in the consultation regarding equalisation, use of referendums, and the application of the code to town and parish councils. The revised draft code is appended to the report.

2   House of Lords Select Committee on Relations Between Central and Local Government, Rebuilding Trust, Session 1995-96, HL Paper 97 Back

3   Communities and Local Government Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2008-09, The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government, HC 33, [Incorporating HC 813-i-iv, Session 2007-08] Back

4   HM Government, Decentralisation: an assessment of progress, December 2012, p14  Back

5   Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth, October 2012, para 2.8  Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 29 January 2013