Features: May 22nd, 2009

Chris Leslie

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

Reform of the public services is on the agenda of every Government. There are different views on priorities for change, but the fragmentation of local service delivery across a range of agencies with differing levels of accountability is high up the list. The author argues that the way forward is to decentralize and localize services giving councils the power to deliver.

Politics is playing out a particularly turbulent phase at the national level right now, an environment in which initiatives can come thick and fast. Ironically, localists should see the current party competition as an opportunity to compare commitment to devolution, to see which parties will put their money where their mouths are. There is much lip-service paid to the cause of decentralization, but when it comes to the crunch the siren voices of Whitehall can grip politicians with petrifying inertia.

For this reason, I was intrigued to read George Jones’ self-confessed ‘pessimistic’ outlook on the future of local government (the May 2008 PMPA report: The Future of Local Government: Has it One?). I began by agreeing with his analysis—the fragmentation of local service delivery across a range of agencies with differing levels of accountability has done little to promote an effective, efficient and responsive public sector. Without reform, this will never persuade citizens that their interests are at the heart of everything the sector does.

The need for change

George Jones was right in arguing that the current local policy environment is confusing—for the service user who has to give his or her details five times to five different organizations, who isn’t sure who to complain to when repairs are not completed or a home is vandalized. He also accurately outlined the difficulty for locally elected members in trying to offer real accountability to their electorate when they have limited levers to influence the local police, PCT or housing association, and when tight centralized funding and efficiency demands make annual council tax rises almost inevitable. The gradual erosion of local powers, responsibilities and financial autonomy have had a detrimental impact on democratic participation, efficiency and innovation.
Only by fundamentally redressing the central/local balance and driving local authorities to extend their reach and ambition will we deliver the outcomes that any national government will wish to see—from housing to worklessness, policing to global warming. The political realities of the day mean that we need to keep pushing this point, convincing risk-averse national politicians that it is in their own interests to devolve: the more they let go, the more they’ll get back in return.

This is the mantra by which we at the New Local Government Network (NLGN) live and in some ways Jones’ recommendations echoed our 2006 publication, Pacing Lyons. This outlined our aspirations for what then appeared to be a relatively promising Lyons Review. We argued that holistic reform was necessary, and that piecemeal improvements would quickly unravel. Change requires:

• A bottom-up performance framework—that builds on and strengthens LAAs, the new CAA, the reduced indicator set, local community contracts and ‘calls-to¬action’, allowing citizens and local agencies to demand accountability from under-performing bodies.

• A more autonomous, incentive-based funding regime—that allows local authorities to draw the majority of their revenues from the local area, and to benefit (or lose out) from local decisions. We have argued for a range of funding reforms including expanded LABGI (local authority business growth incentive), localized worklessness and benefits funding, and a bolder move to ‘taxes-as grants’ that assign taxes (such as a reformed stamp duty, vehicle excise duty or a proportion of income tax) to local authorities instead of direct grant. Councils should be incentivized by local taxpayers more, and less by ministerial grant-giving.

• Governing needs to be through networks—challenging George Jones’ argument that ‘it is not enough [to be] scrutineers, brokers, influencers, advocates, enablers, supporters, and mediators; they need powers, to enforce and to act’. Councils do need improved levers to influence their partners, but the ability to convince partners through a combination of strong leadership, effective commissioning and a clear vision for the local area, can deliver more than diktat or command and control.

• Councils need to increase their political legitimacy and the local consensus. This would include a strengthened role for council leaders and executives, stronger scrutiny, better information, more public levers to drive improvement, single member wards with increased devolution to the neighbourhood level.

• Increased capacity in the sector—with better skilled and compensated staff, more ambitious, self-confident authorities able to balance and manage modern risks, supported by new recruitment frameworks that attract and retain a representative modern workforce.

Together, such reforms not only improve service delivery, strengthen accountability and release public sector innovation. They would also support any government to deliver its national policy aims.

George Jones’ pessimism is common to that of analysts and councils themselves, who have long focused on the negatives of their environment—the poor response to Lyons, the lack of real local government policy on either political wing, the unwillingness of government to address local government finance or to strengthen a potential rival political power-base. This pessimism ignores many things—LAAs, well-being and place-shaping powers, the ability to suggest national policy changes (through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007), increasing local government duties (such as economic development), and the increasing co-operation of partners. Some of these can appear cosmetic (the Concordat comes in for criticism typically), but together they represent an opportunity for local government, creating flexibility and space in the system. They open doors that the most ambitious local authorities are now pushing wider. Take the multi-area agreement process—an unstructured, open-ended invitation to councils to ask for virtually whatever they want. While the authorities concerned won’t necessarily get everything they request, at least the invitation is there, and perhaps exposing how councils are not actually always asking for the extra powers that they should!

Councils should demand more

The alternative to devolution is more of the same—continued waste of public resource, rising citizen dissatisfaction and disillusionment with a distant Whitehall politics, public policy stagnation and the inability to deliver the personalized services people demand. If local government really has been retained in order that central government has someone to blame, then councils and their electorate should be pushing government to let go of more and let local government carry more of the risk. Some local authorities are ready to rise to this challenge and those that aren’t will need to learn quickly.
Local authorities can provide the answers to many of the difficult questions that the present government faces. We should never tire of reminding them, or their successors, of this fact.

Chris Leslie is Director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN). Until 2005, he was a Member of Parliament and minister for local government and later constitutional affairs.