The Government’s Localism Bill, aims to devolve power to local authorities and give communities more control over local decisions. Yet George Jones and John Stewart argue that true localism will not develop unless there is fundamental change in the working of central government.

It seems that the government’s approach to localism does not recognise that the main barriers to the development of localism lie in central government itself..  The development of the Localism Bill currently before parliament has been conditioned by the dominant centralist culture of central government – with the result that the Localism Bill could as well have been called the Centralism Bill. As it stands, the bill contains a few provisions that entrench localism, neglects important financial arrangements between authorities and the centre, and fails to adequately face up to the relationship between decentralising to local authorities and decentralising to local communities and citizens.

Localism and centralism in the Bill

Proposals in the Bill give expression to localism and decentralisation to local authorities, but they are set within a framework that remains largely centralist. Examples of localism in the Bill include:

  • The proposed general power of competence, which would give local authorities the ability to act in the best interests of their communities, even if specific legislation does not give those authorities the power to take the action they intend. This new power will, it is hoped,, overcome the restrictions placed by the courts on the ‘powers of well-being.’
  • The provisions placing responsibility for maintaining standards of conduct on local authorities rather than on the external Standards Board, which show confidence in local authorities and localism.
  • The repeal of provisions in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 which specify in great detail how local authorities should deal with petitions. These provisions were a classic example of centralism in which it was assumed that those in central government (who did not have to deal with local petitions) knew better how to deal with them than local authorities.

While there are other examples of localism in the Bill, centralism is more dominant. For example:

  • The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will decide whether the expenditure proposed by a local authority is excessive and a local referendum is held.
  • The Secretary of State has indicated that twelve large cities must hold referendums on elected mayors even though their councils have not decided to hold one and their citizens have not sought one- even though only 5 per cent of the electorate have to sign a petition to secure a referendum.  The Secretary of State also has the right to appoint by order the leader of the authority as ‘shadow mayor’ with all the powers of the mayor. The Secretary of State’s powers can be exercised even before any mayoral referendum has been held.
  • Alteration of a local authority’s internal political structures is excluded from the general power of competence.  One would expect a competent authority to be able to determine its own internal political arrangements.
  • Local authorities must consider whether an expression of interest by a community group, in providing one or more of its services, would promote or improve social, economic and environmental well-being.  But it can be rejected only on grounds to be specified by the Secretary of State by regulation.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has calculated there are at least 142 order and regulation-making provisions in the Bill, in addition to the 405 pages in the Act, with its 208 clauses and 25 schedules.  We foresee the forthcoming Act being accompanied by a panoply of regulations and orders (as well as by almost endless pages of guidance) as the centre seeks to determine what should be done locally- rather than the local authority which knows local conditions and is locally accountable.

Local finances – a neglected, but essential, element

There is a huge gap in the Bill; a Localism Bill that lived up to its name would have dealt with the financing of local government. Centralism will prevail as long as local authorities are massively dependent for their resources on central government. They become supplicants for funding from central government rather than engaging in a dialogue with their citizens about local priorities.  Currently, through the complex procedures and calculations laid down, the Secretary of State will effectively decide whether the rate of council tax proposed by an authority is excessive, thus triggering a referendum.  A genuine Localism Bill would rebalance local government finance by giving local authorities more ability to levy taxes. Local authorities could then draw the bulk of their resources from their own voters with taxes whose rates they determine.

A challenge to centralism

Centralism pervades central government in forming its attitudes and determining its procedures and practices, and there are many examples of this attitude even in the Department of Communities and Local Government which is sponsoring the Bill. The Secretary of State thinks that all authorities should publish details of the salaries of senior staff and of any expenditure over £500 and therefore sees it as right to require them to do so in the Localism Bill.  These duties may be sensible for authorities but it should be for local authorities to decide.

The centralism implicit in the accepted ministerial role is well illustrated by the letter sent by Bob Neill, a junior CLG minister, to all local authority leaders informing them they should provide an effective refuse collection even in difficult circumstances, as if they were unaware or incapable of doing so.  Ministers often believe they must act even when matters could and should be left to local authorities to deal with.

Measures are required to entrench localism, but a statute is not enough to secure change; procedures for monitoring and enforcement are also needed. A unit in the Cabinet Office could be established to monitor the operation of the principles of central and local government relations that should be set out in the statute and ensure its application by different departments.  Even more effective would be establishing a joint committee of the two houses of parliament with responsibility for monitoring central-local relations in accordance with localism principles, reporting to parliament both annually and on specific proposals. Without such changes localism will remain a topic that is more spoken about than acted on. 

Decentralisation to communities and to local authorities

As well as decentralisation to local authorities the Government’s localism policies involve decentralisation to communities. The Government has not clarified the relationship as between these two approaches to decentralization although it appears it sees the relationship being determined by detailed regulation rather than by local authorities working with communities.  Nick Boles, an influential Conservative MP, has recognized in his recent book Which Way’s Up? the role of local authorities in working with communities, arguing

…local communities should be given the power and the freedom to take charge of their own destinies, and that, to do so, they need strong and  independent local government, representing the wishes of local people and trying out new ways of working that make life better for them…” (pages xviii –xix).

But there are many issues to be faced in relation to decentralization to communities.  What is a community?  Is decentralisation about only communities of place or does it include those of background, interest and need as well?  What if more than one group claims to be the sole expression of the community?

Problems could arise if these issues are not resolved as decentralisation to communities develops.  Unrepresentative community groups could arise, dominated by a few individuals and sectional interests.  There could be little accountability of groups to local people. Early enthusiasm in the community could be eroded over time and individuals sustaining the group could leave the area.  The requirements for open government could be ignored. Financial irregularities could occur, and conflicts may arise between the local authority and community groups, unless the relationship is clear, close and productive of a shared understanding.  While disagreements are inevitable the danger is they can lead to sustained conflicts which could undermine not merely localism but the aspirations of the Big Society.

These kinds of difficulties can be resolved only by placing responsibility for involving and empowering communities on local authorities, who can work with the community in resolving these kinds of issues. Local community groups can be essential for scrutiny of local government and articulating views but decisions about local areas should ultimately be taken by locally elected officials, rather than by unelected community groups that may have sectional or unrepresentative points of view.

Moving localism forward?

The Government’s policies for localism are to be welcomed in principle, yet much remains to be done to make localism a reality in practice. Decentralising local-government financing and better managing the relationship between decentralisation to local authorities and decentralisation to community groups are essential. Localism will not develop unless central government itself changes, yet there is no sign in the Bill that such change is likely. If localism is to develop, central government will have to learn new ways.

This article is a shorter version of a paper that first appeared in The World Will Be Your Oyster?: Perspectives from the Institute of Local Government Studies on the Localism Bill.

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