Features: January 27th, 2006

National Challenges, Local Solutions

By Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm 

Two clear messages emerged from the 2005 General Election: firstly, people are increasingly voting on local issues, but secondly, there is a growing disillusionment with and distrust for politicians of whatever party. Wide regional and local voting patterns and the growth of both single issue campaigns and minority parties demonstrate the hunger for more choice and power at the local level. But overall turnout highlights a broader frustration and a cynicism both with politicians and a political process over which the public feel they can exert little influence. Democracy now needs to be strengthened, and this can be rebuilt most effectively from the bottom up, through more vibrant, confident and more autonomous local government.

Encouragingly, the major political parties have already begun to move. “Localism” will feature strongly in the Conservative policy debates, while the Government has appointed an additional Cabinet-ranking Minister, a move which must also be welcomed. But, how in practice can the political commitments be delivered?

A call for localism

An immediate answer can be found in the LGA Manifesto. It calls for a bold and radical decentralisation to improve public services, devolve power to local people, strengthen local democracy and make better use of the public’s money. At its heart is a sweeping decentralisation, together with real change in the way in which local and central government work together, enabling priorities to be set locally and re-engaging people with local democracy.

The LGA manifesto argues for decentralisation both to local councils and through local councils; and that we, in turn, empower the local residents, local organisations and communities that we represent. It is not enough for local councils simply to gain additional powers, we must ourselves devolve to increase local responsiveness and confidence in the political system.

National standards and local choice

But the Government must go further. There is a genuine dichotomy between any government’s desire to have national standards and the need for local choice and local diversity. However, we need clarity about which very few services genuinely require national standards so that the remainder can be freed from central control.

The Public Service Board/Local Area Agreement concept should also be rolled out. There has always been a difficulty for government departments in coordinating and joining central government and it is essential that we build on the success of Public Service Agreements and develop the LAA/PSB approach. The LGA is committed to go forward with Local Area Agreements, and welcomed the announcement of the roll-out of a further 40 pilot LAAs. Although it is early days, Public Service Boards have proved effective in joining public services together locally in council-led boards -bringing together the heads of the major local services (police, fire, health, benefits) around a single table. Councils are now ready to offer to take on responsibility for the wider governance of their area, and to shift visible accountability from Ministers to local government.

Fundamentally, there must also be a bonfire of quangos and a re-balancing back to accountable and democratic councils. The growing array of unelected, unaccountable quangos, trusts and agencies now spend more than four times that of local government!

Inspection and funding

In addition, local government inspection can, and should, be reduced. We see local government with a track record of improvement but, while the Audit Commission is taking some steps in the right direction, too many managers across public services are forced to permanently look to Whitehall, its inspectorates and targets. Local public managers should be encouraged instead to look more to the customers and to public satisfaction, and to tailor their services accordingly. National inspection must be reduced, and be proportionate to risk.

On funding for local government, it is imperative that local people can see a clear relationship between the services they receive and what they pay in local tax. More of the money already collected locally must be retained locally. Council tax increases were held down last spring because of an injection of “one-off” funding. In March LGA identified a £1.5 billion ‘black hole’ in funding. The difficulties are now escalating with the forecast of a grant increase to councils next year of only 1%, and a Chancellor’s “red book” prediction of council tax yield rising to over 7%.

To our dismay the long awaited Lyons Review on the “balance of funding”, on which the LGA has worked with the ODPM for 2½ years, how now been kicked back into touch.

Moving from centralism to localism

Recent surveys, too, show that the public regards councils as twice as relevant to their lives as central government and that the overwhelming majority wish to see councils, not government or agencies, delivering public services. As such, the potential is real for a resurgence of civic pride and civic renewal, which in itself can help renew confidence and trust in politics. The democratic arguments for localism are irrefutable and lie alongside the potential to dramatically improve public services.

Despite some tentative moves towards localism, the UK is seen to be highly centralist and increasingly out-of-date. The new Government must now demonstrate, with decisive action, its commitment to a radical decentralisation which brings freedom and autonomy to local government. With a track record of improving delivery, with the public’s renewed interest in local issues and with the need to rebuild democracy, local government has a new legitimacy and a new confidence. Given greater autonomy we can provide better services, greater choice, increased efficiency and better value for money while at the same time helping to re-strengthen democracy and trust.

Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart is Chairman of the Local Government Association