Driving the Localism Agenda
Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts MP, writes about the challenges facing decentralisation and the localism agenda.
Last week, just over a year after the Localism Act received Royal Assent, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP published his long-awaited progress report on the Government’s work to decentralise power from Whitehall to communities. It is over 18 months since the Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, conducted its inquiry into Localism. Back in June 2011 we welcomed the appointment of Greg Clark as Minister for Decentralisation and we expected that “it will be part of the Minister’s role to bring coherence and a sense of priorities to the Government’s localism agenda, and we look forward to the outcome of his first report to the Prime Minister about progress in each department”.
It has taken over a year for the Government to publish the report. That in itself is significant. I suspect that there may have been some intense negotiations within Whitehall before the report was allowed to see the light of day. The fact that publication has taken so long means that the report describes the position over a year ago.
Those reservations aside, what does the report reveal? I have been keen to see whether the ethos of localism and decentralisation has broken out from the Department for Communities and Local Government to become embedded into the work of all government departments.
The report awarded departments a rating of between one and five stars, depending on the extent of their engagement with decentralisation. All departments received two stars or more; the majority scored three (meaning that decentralisation was “in the pipeline”); and two departments – the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education – received four stars, meaning that they were “well on the way” but not yet moving at “full speed” towards decentralisation. No department got five stars.
Some of the scores in Greg Clark’s report came as a surprise to me – not least the three stars awarded to the Department of Work and Pensions, whose priorities the Committee found to “appear particularly resistant to the arguments for devolving power to local institutions”. Nevertheless, the report’s publication is to be welcomed, and I hope it stimulates departments to meet the challenges of decentralisation.
For me, there are two particular issues that all departments have to address if we are to see genuine localisation of power. The first is to recognise the importance of local democratic accountability. Local authorities should be central to localism. A number of the examples of progress in the Decentralisation report – notably school policy, the Work Programme and the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners – serve to bypass councils rather than empower them. There are some more positive examples – the Committee, for instance, is currently examining the new public health role given to councils – but greater consistency is needed. This is not to say that local institutions such as housing associations cannot make a valuable contribution. Councils, however, have a democratic mandate which sets them apart from other bodies. The Government should recognise the legitimacy of this mandate: one of the tests of applied to departments should be the extent to which they have devolved power and, just as importantly, resources to local authorities.
An area of particular concern to me and to local government itself has been the lack of control local authorities have over their finances. Greg Clark’s report found that “little has been done so far to reduce the proportion of public funding that is determined and raised centrally or to put those resources directly in the hands of communities” and it is not clear to what extent this issue is being addressed. With an increasing range of responsibilities being shifted to local authorities it is vital that appropriate levels of funding go with them. It is unfortunate and perhaps rather revealing that the department which was not even reviewed by the report, let alone given a single star, is the Treasury. If Whitehall is to embrace localism in the way that is needed the whole of Whitehall must become advocates for localism.
The second issue for the Government is to give up the notion that localism can be centrally-directed. This is a matter on which DCLG, for all its rhetoric about devolution and decentralisation, has been found wanting. Its Secretary of State has been fond of terms such as “guided localism” and, more recently, “muscular localism”. When he gave evidence to the Committee on 12 December, we pressed him to define “muscular localism”. For him it is giving power to communities and minorities within the community rather than to local authorities. This localism without local government risks handing local decision making to the interest group with the loudest voice in central government rather than facilitating local democracy. If localism is to succeed, Ministers have to let go and resist the temptation to intervene whenever they have a view—especially a strong view—about a decision taken locally.
The Secretary of State told the Committee on 12 December that 2013 would be a year of “enormous change” for localism. He explained that neither local authorities nor community groups had yet grasped the full extent of their powers. I look forward to examining the progress that the Secretary of State clearly expects to be made in the coming twelve months. I would urge caution, however, if the “almost constitutional” change the Secretary of State foresees is the effective bypassing of local government by Whitehall.
In his report, Greg Clark calls for the publication of an annual performance report on decentralisation, and the introduction of an annual debate in Parliament on a decentralisation statement delivered by a Minister. I would wholeheartedly support these initiatives as opportunities to keep up the pressure on Government departments to shift power to local government. Some progress has been made, but there remains a long way to go before we become a country which is locally governed.