Headlines: May 9th, 2006

Greater local choice and not more central control is the way to achieve a system that can manage increasing pressures on public expenditure, increase satisfaction and build more prosperous communities, according to Sir Michael Lyons in his latest thinking on the future role and function of local government. Sir Michael’s inquiry has been looking into the function of Local Government since last September when its remit was extended to take in those issues before finalising his conclusions on reform of funding.In his latest report, “National prosperity, local choice and civic engagement: a new partnership between central and local government for the 21st century”, he also argues that local government should be given greater freedom to ‘place-shape’. That would mean a local authority taking responsibility for the well-being of an area and the people who live there, promoting their interests and their future. His report has been welcomed by the Local Government Association.

He urges central government to clear the space for that to happen effectively by setting fewer and better-focused targets and reducing central control. He calls too for clarification of the roles of central and local government, based on a realistic assessment of who is best placed to do what, and to allow greater local influence over public services. At the same time he has challenged local government to raise its game further and to build on recent improvements. It should promote effective local choice and energetic ‘place-shaping’, he said, adding that this would require stronger leadership, closer engagement with local residents, effective partnership working with other services and the business community, and a consistent commitment to efficiency and cost effectiveness.

Sir Michael said the improvements in local government performance and public services in recent years should be celebrated, but he added, “At the same time the gravitational pull of Government grants, targets and performance management has created an unhealthy situation where local councils are too often focused on the wishes of Ministers and their departments rather than their own citizens’ needs and preferences. Add to this a growing concern that centralisation brings its own confusions and rigidities and it is not difficult to see why there is a growing interest in redefining the relationship between central and local government to leave more room for local choice.”

We were failing, he added, to make the most of the potential contribution local government could make to national prosperity and well-being, and getting the most from taxpayer’ money. “This requires significant reform and challenges to both central and local government. We must recognise that this is a shared agenda. We need to devise a new partnership, clarifying who is responsible for what, drawing on respective strengths and working together to achieve the best results,” he said in the report.

The report sets out six key areas in which these changes will bring benefits, better delivery throughout the system; services that better meet local needs; more prosperous communities; better value for money; benefits of enhanced innovation and greater public trust.

The report has been welcomed by the Local Government Association. Its chairman, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, said it presented a clear, evidence-based case for localism and for devolution to local authorities and argued for local councils to have the powers to make local choices in response to local people’s needs and aspirations.