The communities and local government select committee published its report on localism on 9 June following an extensive inquiry.
The committee welcomes the government’s support of a localist approach, but questions its delivery. It suggests that there is no coherent definition of localism, and there is lack of clarity over who would ultimately be responsible for what under a localist agenda. Different government departments interpret localism in very different ways and some departments, such as the DWP, clearly do not see local government as being critical to a decentralisation.
The report considers:
- how is localism defined and what are its aims
- how does decentralisation really work across government and can the culture of Whitehall be radically changed?
- whether there has to be limits to localism to ensure fairness and the safeguarding of vulnerable people and to deliver good performance
- the role of councils in localism and whether there is consistency in government here
- who will deliver localism and what is the role of local government in delivery and ensuring local accountability
The committee’s recommendations are hardly revolutionary – the importance of the report is more in its analysis of how localism is interpreted across government and reminding CLG ministers of their responsibility to see that it is progressed in each department.
It is clearly the case that individual departments have vastly different views of what is clear government policy that there should be a real shift to a localist approach – from support, through indifference (or misinterpretation) to hostility – at least to local government’s specific role. Even CLG ministers who are the most vocal in their support of localism, and, indeed, in many of their policies, such as those on planning, seem unable to resist interfering in matters which should be locally determined, such as bin collections.
Ministers may have a stronger case when they say they have a right to express views over issues such as Supporting People funding. Legislation and government guidance will not in themselves deliver localism – fundamental changes in culture and behaviour are needed across Whitehall.
The committee is right to highlight the ambivalence in the government over what they mean by localism and also their lack of a clear stated view of the role of local government in the future. This ‘incoherence’ must be part of the reason why some government departments can get away with the approach they are taking.
There is a real danger that local government will continue to be bypassed by particular departments. If we are to have much greater variety in how services are delivered and policy implemented locally, local democracy becomes actually more important as it provides the democratic mandate which makes sense of local differences; local politicians have to consider their areas a whole, balance the needs of different groups and protect more vulnerable ones.
The debates over localism would not, of course, be over if the government defined what they meant more clearly. Localism is always going to mean somewhat different things to different people and is a combination of factors as well. The issues around fairness, equality and standards are, in any case, bound to be difficult.
Taking adult social care as a current example, when the Dilnot Commission reports imminently on the future of social care funding, one of the dilemmas it needs to find solutions for is how to maintain local discretion whilst ensuring individuals are treated fairly and consistently wherever they live.
The LGiU agrees strongly with the committee that the government needs to be bolder on financial freedoms and on developing area budgets (or place based budgets or whatever they are being called currently).
There could be said to have been a backward move since Total Place, which admittedly was not fully developed, but did seem to show that a total place approach could deliver savings, strengthen joint working and promote early intervention. As the committee points out, the resource review will also be a critical reflection of how far the government will go in giving councils much greater financial autonomy. Again, however, there are no easy answers if financial self-sufficiency for some councils is to be achieved without penalising others.
The committee’s conclusion that local authorities are central to the delivery of the localism agenda is central:
“Even if the capacity of communities to take over services was infinite, we consider that there would still be vital roles for democratically elected local authorities to play … Local authorities are also needed as enablers, market-shapers and failsafe’s, evening out inconsistencies or gaps in service provision, and helping community groups and the voluntary sector to grow their own capacity.”
This briefing is available in full to all officers and elected members of LGiU member authorities. For more information about LGiU membership please contact our Partnerships manager Chris Naylor on 020 7554 2834 or on firstname.lastname@example.org