Brandon Lewis MP: Politicians should not fear the localist agenda of giving more real powers to local authorities
There is a new buzzword being used by politicians – localism. For many, this has created excitement at the new opportunities it may offer, for others it has struck them with uncertainty and fear at having to adapt to a new era in local politics.
A journalist recently quizzed me on how communities could possibly cope without the funding provided by the regional assemblies. This is an argument we hear from our Labour opponents; if we abolish a government body or quango, then all the money it spends will also disappear.
I am amazed at how many people still assume that the best way of achieving an outcome is through bureaucratic and expensive government. Thirteen years of power crazy, centralising and meddling New Labour should show us that this is simply not the way to do it. With the tightening of public finances it is vital that red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy are cut, so that as much money as possible is spent on the frontline.
Recently, I met a quango chief responsible for business development, who told me that they use a third of their income on salaries and administration costs. Successful business groups, like the FSB or Chamber of Commerce, would argue they could distribute funding to businesses at a fraction of the cost. In many cases they would be delighted to offer this service for free, to help stimulate economic growth in their area (saving the local taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds). Local authorities are equally suited undertake this task. So why do we need the quango?
This is the basis of localism. Why do we need Whitehall directing what we do locally? This will mean more responsibility for councillors. Some may be happier about that than others. When I was a council leader, I was desperate to have more real power for our local authority, and spent a lot of time arguing for less interference from Whitehall. At last it is going to happen. I believe most councillors will be excited about the opportunities that can create.
Politicians should not fear this paradigm shift but embrace it. However, we must be transparent and handle this change with responsibility. We will need to argue the case, highlight the benefits to our communities and assist in bringing together the private, public and voluntary sectors. New ways of working and co-operating will be needed by all those involved.
How can the public sector really know what is best for the private sector, what requirements for location and investment it needs, without outside input? The public sector works in a different way, therefore local authorities need to work with the private sector to ensure that decisions made, genuinely work to help local business develop and our economy grow.
This is where Local Enterprise Partnerships can be so powerful, as they can be shaped to local needs. For example, in Great Yarmouth it is possible to see a Norfolk Enterprise Partnership develop in the year ahead of us, working closely with Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and even Essex and Lincolnshire. This could be developed further to create an industry specific partnership, bringing together those that can benefit from the drive towards more renewable energy.
I would also like to see the tourist trade assisted through local tourism partnerships rather than the unwieldy tourist authorities. A tourism partnership serving the East Anglian coastal zone may for example be more attuned to local operators needs and better able to direct marketing campaigns.
The key principle to this is localism in its true sense and it is that people decide their priorities and develop a local solution. Community led action instead of diktat from “suits” in Whitehall. We should rejoice at these changes, prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead and make the most of these new opportunities.