Features: January 23rd, 2009

By Steve Bundred

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

Localism, where a wide range of decision making is moved down to the local level, is growing in popularity and its advocates are becoming more vocal. The author presents the case against widespread localism. He argues that governments prefer centralism for reasons such as avoiding post code lotteries. He also believes that ministers have the support of electors to exert control over local authorities because many councils have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people they serve.

Roger Latham says in his introduction to George Jones’ May 2008 PMPA report that ‘George reaches conclusions which any local government officer would feel warmed by’. True, but that’s not the point!

Jones is a strong advocate of localism and he puts the case well. But why, if the arguments for localism are so powerful, have we witnessed the opposite for so long? This is a question that Jones does not fully address, or at least one to which he fails to provide a convincing answer.

Instead, what he provides is a road map to a better future—a new constitutional settlement enshrining the role of local government and given expression in a Bill of Rights, together with an independent commission to be the guardian of this settlement, overseeing and appraising it.

These all seem like good ideas. But they are not going to happen. There is no prospect for the foreseeable future of any government bringing forward legislation of this kind. And if there were to be a government inclined to do so, the measures wouldn’t be necessary, because the problem, by definition, would have already disappeared.

The case for centralism

So why have recent governments of different political persuasions become so wedded to centralism? What might really persuade a future government to take a different view?

Jones explains the past by identifying three centralizing pressures of national standards, the media, and ministers and civil servants; and then presents a case for how these might be counterbalanced. But his explanation of the pressures for centralization is both incomplete and understated.

Let’s begin with the understated bits. Jones dismisses the desire of governments to impose common national service standards and eliminate so-called ‘postcode lotteries’ on the basis that ministers have misread public opinion as a result of asking the wrong questions in polls. He presents a good case as to why national standards can have perverse local effects, but he underestimates the public’s belief in them. And he fails adequately to acknowledge that the desire among the public for more standards and more inspection of how well they’re being met stems in large measure from a widespread public mistrust of those who run local authorities—both members and officers.

The media and ministers

This brings us to his point about the role of the media. The problem, he explains, is that the media in this country is unusually national in its character and national journalists look at issues from a national perspective. But I know a lot of councillors who do not feel they get a sympathetic hearing from their local newspapers. And one reason that councils get unfavourable media coverage is because they provide too many examples of incompetence, negligence, or insensitivity. Bad news is always more interesting than good news, and while local government continues to generate bad news it can’t complain about it being reported. Oh, and if Jones thinks national politicians are treated more sympathetically by the national media, he should try talking to anyone close to Gordon Brown!

Finally, Jones rails against the role played by ministers and civil servants. But here he does little more than provide a good account of the differences of view within Whitehall about local democracy and of the perverse consequences that can arise from departmental attempts to bypass councils. He also makes too little of the fact that the majority of local expenditure is financed by national taxation.

Winning the political argument

This report provides a coherent intellectual case for local government. But it fails to acknowledge that winning the debate will not be enough to bring about change. There is a political argument still to be won.

When ministers seek to exert control over local authorities, they generally do so with the support of the electorate. This is because many local councils have failed to win the hearts and minds of those they serve.

Too often, councils appear remote and arrogant. For years, they provided poor quality services while behaving as if the interests of taxpayers and service users were less important to them than the interests of council employees. So even where local people now accept that council services are getting better, they assume this is in spite of the council rather than because of it. Places where there are popular council services often still have unpopular councils. And councillors are unknown or distrusted far more often than they are respected local figures.

The LGA understands this and understands too that it is a fatal chink in the armoury of local government. Until it is effectively addressed, there will be no great pressure on ministers to let go. Hence the LGA has rightly devoted substantial effort in recent years to enhancing the reputation of local government. But the public is proving difficult to win over.
When advised in 1935 to make some conciliatory gesture to the Vatican, Stalin famously asked ‘How many battalions does the Pope have?’ Until it becomes impossible for ministers to treat local government with the same disdain, Jones will carry on presenting the cogent arguments set out in this report only to discover that they fall on deaf ears.

Steve Bundred is Chief Executive of the Audit Commission.