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An audit of localism - and five forecasts about what will happen next

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-02-22 at 22.31.31 I wrote yesterday about the limits of localism (to which Matthew Sinclair wrote a well-argued response).  I ended my piece by promising to examine today how localist the Government's being - and thus try to answer some of the questions I raised.

Let's start by looking at the Coalition Agreement, which declares in its introduction that -

"We have...a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation.  Wherever possible, we want people to call the shots over the decisions that affect their lives."

I've identified the following commitments in the agreement which are localist in flavour.  Warning: it's almost certainly not an exhaustive list, and I've truncated the wording in some places.  But I think that it catches most of the major pledges -
  • Replace Regional Development Agencies with Local Enterprise Partnerships.
  • Rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop "garden grabbing".
  • Abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission.
  • Abolish the Government Office for London.
  • Create new trusts that will make it simpler for communities to provide homes for local people.
  • Phase out the ring-fencing of grants.
  • Create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums.
  • Give councils a general power of competence.
  • Allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to.
  • Abolish the Standards Board regime.
  • Stop plans for force the regionalisation of the fire service.
  • Introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.
  • Cut local government infrastructure and abolish the Comprehensive Area Assessment.
  • Introduce measures to make the police more accountable through oversight by a directly elected individual, who will be subject to strict checks and balances by locally elected representatives.
  • Oblige the police to publish detailed crime data statistics every month.
  • Overhaul the licensing act to give local authorities and the police much stronger powers to remove licences from, or refuse to grant licences to, any premises that are causing problems.
  • Allow councils and the police to shut down permanently any shop or bar found to be persistently selling alcohol to childen.
  • Permit councils to charge more for late-night licences to pay for additional policing.
  • Stop the centrally-dictated closure of A&E wards.
  • Ensure there is a stronger voice for patients locally through directly elected individuals on the boards of their local primary care trust.
  • We will give every patient the right to choose to register with the GP they want, without being restricted by where they live.
  • Doctors and nurses need to be able to use their professional judgement about what is right for patients and we will support this by giving front-line staff more control of their working environment.
  • We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall.
  • We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament.
  • We will introduce a new public "reading stage" for bills to give the publican an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online.
  • We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.
  • We will give local communities greater control over public health budgets.
  • We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools.
  • We will reform the existing rigid national pay and conditions rules to give schools greater freedoms to pay good teachers more and deal with poor performance.
  • We wll give heads and teachers the powers they need to ensure discipline in the classroom and promote good behaviour.
  • We wil simplify the regulation of standards in education and target inspection on areas of failure.
  • We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises.
  • We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver.
  • We will train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across Britain.
  • We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.
  • We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and social action.
  • We will extend the greater roll-out of personal budgets to give people and their carers more control and purchasing power.
  • We will use direct payments to carers and better community-based provision to improve access to respite care.
  • We will set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangos.

I want now to make three points that arise from this list -

  • Some of these commitments have already been dropped.  For example, the Government's no longer committed to funding 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament.  Others will no doubt be jettisoned or compromised in due course.
  • A few of them take more power from local government to the centre.  For example, requiring councils to publish details of all spending above £500 is essentially a diktat from the centre.  This doesn't make it wrong - it's essentially part of the deal whereby some powers are restored to councils.
  • And some of them bypass local government altogether, and give more power to local people.  For example, giving residents the power to veto large council tax increases is an unashamedly populist measure.  It's arguably more localist than letting councils decide.  But it certainly does nothing for their autonomy.

And here are five predictions about what I think will happen -

  • Local GovernmentGovernment enthusiasm for localism will wane as the local authority map turns red.  The high tide of centralism is retreating.  Councils are already regaining autonomy (via, say, the scaling-down of ring-fencing) and will gain power (over, for example, alcohol sales).  However, they're unlikely to regain big tax-raising powers, such as the freedom to set local business rates: the Treasury and the Business Department will resist such steps.  The urban Mayoral referendums will return anti-Coalition Mayors, sometimes elected on relatively low turnouts.  As the local authority map reddens, resistance to the Government will increase: more councils will cut services rather than costs (as some are already doing), try to resist "Big Society" bids for their services by other providers, and refuse to build new homes.  Government enthusiasm for localism will thus wane.  A few outstanding Conservative Councils will be beacons of good practice and fight to fend the opposition off in local elections.
  • NHS.  The reforms will collide with an "NHS crisis", causing big problems for Downing Street.  It remains to be seen whether the doctors greet the Big Bang scrapping of Primary Care Trusts by getting fully behind the change, or manoevre to stifle surgery competition and avoid responsibility for difficult choices.  At some point, the Lansley reforms will collide with the NHS funding squeeze, there'll be a good (or rather bad) old-fashioned "NHS crisis", and the Treasury will probably have to step in with yet more money.  And it's not yet clear who'll be left standing when the music stops and decisions have to be made about hospital closures.  I've written before about the risks and opportunities that Andrew Lansley's plans present.
  • Education. Michael Gove will be judged primarily by how many schools become academies.  Nick Clegg's been humilated over tuition fees.  The Liberal Democrats have revolted over the issue.  And "the pinch" that David Willetts described is nipping younger voters.  None the less, the spotlight will remain firmly on schools - and, consequently, on Michael Gove.  The media likes to create yardsticks with which to test the success of Ministers.  To date, the most likely one for the Education Secretary looks to be the creation of free schools - the most eye-catching education localist policy.  However, the establishment of academies is in some ways a better measure.  Some 10% of schools are already academies.  Fraser Nelson argues that this proportion already represents a tipping-point.  If the percentage reaches, say, 20%, I suspect that the momentum will be unstoppable: any future Labour Government would probably be unable to roll back so thoroughly entrenched a reform.  The other big potential test for Gove is exam results: he won't want to be in the paradoxical position of being hammered by the tabloids for worsening student results as exam standards rise.  Much will depend upon the success of the baccalaureate that he's championing so enthusiastically.
  • Policing.  The police commissioners will turn out to be a very mixed bag.  The main localist policing measure, in which Ministers are putting a lot of faith, is the election of commissioners next year in each police authority to hold Chief Constables to account.  I've written before about the size of these authorities.  The example that I tend to cite is my own one in the Thames Valley, concluding that voters in so large an area are unlikely to feel a common sense of owning their commissioner.  It'll be interesting to watch turnout in areas with few or no local government elections.  In any event, the experiment's results will be variable.  There'll be a few independent Ray Mallons, a few commissioners who gang up with the Chief Constable to put pressure on the Government for "more resources - Labour-backed candidates will have, presumably, some success - and some robust law and order campaigners.  In short, the police commissioners will turn out to be a very mixed bag.  That's localism for you.
  • The Big Society Much will depend on the way contracts for services are awarded.  If police commissioners will be a mixed bag, the Big Society will get mixed results.  The idea lumps together community service, new mutuals, charitable giving, more volunteering, personal budgets and - above all, perhaps - new providers running public services.  This will perhaps prove the key test of Cameron's most distinctive cause.  For some of these providers will surely be private operators who offer a better service.  That's fine - but if the private sector rather than Burke's Little Platoons ends up getting most of the contracts, it'll be hard to argue that the result is either more localism or the Big Society.   We read that Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin have turned against the EU in private - and that, in Hilton's case, his hostility's driven by with frustration at EU obstacles to ushering in "the post-bureaucratic age".  This is surely connected to the restrictions with which EU competition law binds contracts for state services.  Jesse Norman's campaign against the abuses of the private finance initiative under Labour and warnings of difficulties ahead are also getting some attention.

Oh, and a sixth prediction: strikes.  Sooner or later, there'll be more of them.

So much for what's likely to happen.  I'll turn finally tomorrow to what should happen.


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