Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Andrea Hill, Chief Executive, Suffolk County Council

In Suffolk we have spent some time and considerable energy in developing a collaborative way of working with our public sector partners. We believe that only by working together across the whole public sector in Suffolk can we meet the twin challenges of improving outcomes for our residents, the communities they live in and businesses in Suffolk, with a reduced financial settlement.

We have had some successes: for example by working in a different way with health and police to support families with complex needs in Ipswich, and improving closer working between GPs and social workers in Southwold to better support older people and reduce hospital admissions/entries into residential care. However we often come up against barriers to collaboration which are, at least in part, created by the nature of the relationship between local and central government.

Local government, despite its democratic mandate, is in many respects a weaker partner in relation to other public services, especially health and police. This means we are unable to bring to the table fully some of our partners who look to central government for their direction. So even when it is in the local interest and backed by a local democratic mandate, often we have found that partners are unable to act with us due to the constraints imposed by Whitehall departments or deprioritise action to achieve local priorities in favour of national priorities.

This reduction in the stature of local government in relation to Whitehall, and therefore its practical impact on other partners locally, has happened over a very long period of time. It is as much, if not more, a political and cultural effect as structural. I have a great deal of sympathy with Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s comments to this effect. However, I do believe that if codification could assist in the restoration of local government as a more equal partner to central government, then codification would be attractive. To do so, codification would need to be more radical than either the Central-Local Concordat, and the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Community budgets, which pool funding and enable decisions about funding to be made collaboratively across the public sector, both support a stronger voice for local government, and requires a more equal relationship between all partners.

We look forward to the General Power of Competence and the introduction of the Health and Wellbeing Boards, the transfer of public health to local authorities and the changes to the way in which health is commissioned locally. All of these, we believe, will have a positive effect on the capacity of local government to deliver its mandate in relation to supporting and developing the local economy and working collaboratively with partners to improve outcomes for residents. However, we are conscious that much uncertainty remains over how these reforms will be delivered, and therefore what real effect they will have.

The remainder of this document deals with the specific questions you raise.

Should the relationship between central and local government be codified? Should codification be considered in the context of wider constitutional codification?

In addition to the points raised in the opening statement, from a local government perspective it is difficult to determine the extent to which codification would serve a positive purpose without knowing the detail of it, particularly as codification does not automatically endow legal status. Nevertheless, if any such code did have its basis in law, on the one hand, it could:

Provide a clear operating framework and clarify powers and responsibilities that may otherwise be open to interpretation or challenge, such as the Wellbeing Power.

Particularly if based on the principle of outcomes, help equalize a currently unequal central/local relationship and serve to strengthen local government’s independence vis-à-vis central government and therefore the delivery partners of central government, such as health.

Protect local government from unwarranted prescription and micro-management, and allow it greater flexibility in pursuit of local and shared objectives.

On the other hand, there is a risk that codification would:

Create an artificial framework that perpetuates the restrictions of a one size fits all approach.

Be unable to quickly and easily adapt to changing circumstances.

Inhibit the ability of local government to work in the best interests of the people it serves.

Unwittingly create new barriers to the delivery of national objectives through local authorities.

If codification is appropriate, what degree of independence and what powers should local government be given?

If codification is appropriate, it should be undertaken in the spirit of localism and devolution, and should serve to strengthen local government’s independence. It should be based on a small number of principles and the delivery of outcomes, although it may also usefully serve to clarify specific powers and duties.

How, if at all, should the status of local government be entrenched, or protected from change by central government?

It would be a retrograde step if codification were to entrench local government to the extent that it was insulated from all change. Codification and the ability to amend the code will require a delicate balancing act to be struck between the right of central government to act in the national interest and to require other tiers of government to do likewise, and the right of local government to act in the local interest.

What consequences should codification or other changes in the relationship between central and local government have on the accountability of local authorities to elected local politicians, local people and central government?

In the context of current policy and (as referred to above) a more equal central/local relationship, codification should serve to strengthen the accountability of local authorities to local people. It is, after all, from these people that local authorities derive their mandate to pursue particular policies. Furthermore, in light of greater financial freedoms, local authorities will have more scope to spend public money in the pursuit of local priorities and should fundamentally be held to account for this by local people.

Does the devolution settlement provide a relevant model for possible codification of the status of local government?

In some respects there isn’t a great deal of difference between the devolution settlements and the current central/local relationship: Scotland and Wales have the powers the government wants them to have and the government still holds the purse-strings through a formula-based grant. On the other hand, there might be some attraction for local government in having devolved powers and responsibilities set down in a single Act of Parliament, as for Scotland, particularly if it granted them freedom to exercise those powers in whatever way they see fit.

What is the value of existing attempts to codify the relationship between central and local government, through the Central-Local Concordat, and the European Charter of Local Self-Government? Should the latter be placed on a statutory footing?

Neither of these has any basis in law and as such they have very little value except as declarations of intent. I cannot see the point in placing the European Charter on a statutory footing as it sets its principles (no matter how laudable) in the context of national statute/constitutions anyway. In any event, given the discussion in the opening paragraphs above, these have not sought to or succeeded in rectifying the balance of the relationship between central and local government.

How would the proposed general power of competence for local authorities affect the constitutional relationship between central and local government?

Depending on how it is framed, the Power has the potential to help equalize the relationship between central and local government. However, as happened with the Wellbeing Power, it is likely that use of the proposed new Power will be challenged and shaped by legal judgement. This could serve to render the power less potent than intended. Also, it remains a fact that the Power will still be constrained by the provisions of other legislation, so it will not be a panacea to current legal barriers.

3 December 2010

Prepared 28th January 2013