Headlines: July 1st, 2003

The balance of power in local government is causing all round disquiet. Two years on since Stephen Byers, the then local government minister, announced plans for a white paper to give local government freedom, little has changed. The Local Government Association has published its critique of central local relations over the past six months with the revealing title of ‘ambition thwarted’. The failure to decentralize has been compounded by moves to give power to regional authorities whilst at the same time exploring the possibility of creating directly elected local bodies.Lord Herman Ousley, President of the LGA, in a speech to the Association today, will criticize ministers for failing to boost the role and power of local councils and local politicians and of responding to difficult issues by putting the power back in the hands of the centre. Taking the Euro debate model he will call for national politicians of all parties to stop and think about localism and apply five tests to every new and existing policy. They cover allowing locally elected people to make decisions about their local services and priorities, directing money to meet locally decided needs and priorities, supporting the role of councils and helping them to identify and meet local needs, enhancing the freedoms and flexibilities available to local councils and consulting with local government through the LGA.

In February 2003 Sir Jeremy Beecham, chair of the LGA warned that legislation on regional government looked more like old centralism managed by a regional branch office, rather than new localism. Speaking on the eve of the LGA conference, Sir Jeremy said: “Some government policies in areas affecting the delivery and quality of services to local people are simply not acceptable. Sold under the umbrella of the term ‘new localism’, we have instead what I can only call ‘new centralism’ dressed up with a veneer of direct democracy. There is a danger public services are being separated artificially and divorced from the local political arena. Directly elected police authorities or a return to old-fashioned school boards would have this effect. Local services need to be connected with each other as much as we need joined up national government.

The LGA is lobbying for a new generation of agreements between individual councils and the Government. They would be like the current Public Service Agreements, but more ambitious. The association also wants more robust and effective partnership arrangements at a local level, harnessing all the relevant players behind a single community strategy.