The gap between rhetoric and reality

James Morris, the new Chief Executive of “Localis” looks at the local central relationship and argues Britain has become the most centralised government in Europe – as he maps out the work he will drive at Localis.

The relationship between central and local government is at a cross roads. Since 1945 there has been a powerful and seemingly unstoppable centralising tendency in the British system of government. Successive governments have sought to strengthen the power and authority of the centre at the expense of local government. Britain now has one of the most centralised political systems in Europe.

This increasing concentration of power has had a number of bad consequences for the governance of Britain. Survey after survey shows that people have less trust and confidence in government. They don’t trust central government to make the right decisions. People feel more and more remote from decision making and consequently feel powerless to affect change. It has been well documented that people feel increasingly disengaged from the political process, not because they don’t care about issues that affect them in their day to day lives, but because they don’t perceive that the structures are available for them to make a difference or have a real, practical say.

The last decade also saw the birth of what became known as localism. This movement has had many guises and many tendencies. It has often been supportive of local government and sometimes dismissive of it. It has informed the policies of the current government in relation to an avowed belief in ‘double devolution’ and the ’empowerment of communities’. The current set of proposals that have emerged from the government’s green paper on the Governance of Britain have proposed several mechanisms for recasting the relationship between central and local government. The concordat between central and local government, for example, which was signed last year by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the LGA, was a practical manifestation of a belated recognition that the relationship between central and local government needs codifying and the Communities Empowerment Action Plan is a policy which has emerged from the same context.

However, critics have argued, that the current government has been unable to pursue a genuinely localist agenda because the policy tendency has always, in the end, resulted in more centralisation not less and more emasculation of local government through centrally determined targets. Many have argued that the government, since 1997, has perceived local government as simply an adjunct to central government – something to be controlled and managed. Local government is seen, in the current government’s policy thrust, as merely an agency of central control. The rhetoric of some in government has not been matched by the reality of action on the ground.

On the Conservative side localism emerged after the 2005 general election as a major plank of the party’s modernising agenda. The shape of the Conservative localist agenda has been slow to emerge but a localist perspective has driven much of the thinking in the party’s recently completed policy review. David Cameron has often spoken of the need to hand power back to local communities; to give communities the freedom to make their own decisions about issues that affect them. Some practical policies have emerged out of this thinking. For example, the policy to have directly elected police commanders. However, as the Conservative Party begins to shape its thinking ahead of the next election there are still many unanswered questions as to the extent and scope of the party’s commitment to decentralisng power and how radical it would be if it gets into power.

So there is a real urgency about the debate. Localis has been at the forefront of the debate about the future role of local government since it was founded in 2002. Much has changed since its launch and Localis’s forward policy agenda represents a recognition that the debate about localism and local government has moved on. The question is no longer about just making the philosophical case for an enhanced role for local government (although that continues to be important) but about defining a model for how the rhetoric can be made into reality. From now until the next election (and beyond) Localis will be developing a research and policy programme which will focus on:

Redefining the financial relationship between central and local government. The reality is that there can be no real devolution of power without devolving real financial powers to local government.
Examining where local authorities are best placed to play a central role in the delivery of public services
Learning lessons from what has worked and what hasn’t worked over the last ten years
Simplifying structures so that lines of accountability are clear. This is particularly true in relation to the whole relationship between local government and the regional tier.
Understanding where capacity building is needed to ensure that local government is ready to take on new responsibilities and new powers to serve their communities.
Being creative about the ways in which new structures of local decision making are needed to complement existing local government modus operandi.
Critically examining, with specific reference to the London experience and other cities, the efficacy of City Mayors as focal points for driving strategic change in particular areas.
Examining where forms of direct democracy have a role to play in revitalizing local democracy and political engagement.

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