08 December 2010

The Localism Bill is unlikely to resolve the all questions posed by the wider devolution agenda.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle is one of life’s simple pleasures. After poring over 1000 small pieces of cardboard for many hours, slotting the final piece into place is a suitably rewarding experience. Conversely, getting to the end of the puzzle only to find that one piece is missing is the ultimate frustration.

The pieces of the localism jigsaw have been falling into place over the last few weeks. The Schools White Paper, the Public Health White Paper and the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill have all included important devolutionary policies that promise to push power away from Whitehall and hand it to “people and communities” removing great swathes of “bureaucracy and red-tape” in the process.

Eric Pickles now holds the final piece of the puzzle in the form of the Localism Bill which is expected to be published this week. However, if we expect the localism picture to be complete as a result we are likely to be disappointed. There are just too many gaps still to be filled.

What are we here for?

Take the role of local authorities. After an apparent last minute change of heart, the Schools White Paper avoids bypassing them altogether but was suitably vague about what exactly their “strategic role as champions for parents, families and vulnerable pupils” will mean in practice.

On the other hand, the Public Health White Paper handed local authorities the public health agenda along with £4bn of spending although it is not yet clear exactly what this is supposed to cover or how the new Health and Wellbeing Boards will operate in practice.

The Localism Bill is expected to give councils a “general power of competence” (PDF, 97KB) giving them the ability to act in the best interests of their communities, even when those actions are not covered by specific legislation.

What we are unlikely to see is any formal codification of the constitutional role of local authorities (which many have called for). Ultimately you’re left with the distinct sense that the government hasn’t quite made its mind up what local authorities are for. That’s a pretty important piece of the localism jigsaw to go missing.

Who’s in charge?

Clarity of accountability is another potential problem, but here the pieces seem to be overlapping. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill included provision for the election of police and crime commissioners to hold police forces to account and “strengthen the bond between the police and the public”. The Localism Bill is expected to include provision for the introduction of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities in England.

There is a strong case for directly elected mayors to strengthen practical leadership in the major cities. But how will directly elected mayors sit alongside directly elected police commissioners? These competing mandates could confuse rather than clarify accountability. It is hard to understand how the mayor in Manchester or Nottingham could be held accountable for quality of life in those areas without direct influence over policing.

Show me the money

Finally there’s the thorny issue of money. The Localism Bill is unlikely to include provisions to significantly increase the financial autonomy for councils who will still receive a majority of their income from Whitehall. Without greater powers to raise taxes locally, many argue that Government are only paying lip service to localism.

Not to mention that one of Whitehall’s largest spenders, the Department for Work and Pensions, is embarking on a massive programme of centralisation taking central control of housing benefit, tax credits and other social security payments through its plans for a universal credit (PDF, 1.7MB).

The big test for the Localism Bill is whether, following its publication, we can stand back and see all these elements coming together into a coherent whole. I suspect we’ll be left wondering if a few pieces of the jigsaw have fallen down the back of the sofa.

STOP PRESS: Sounds like the Bill has been delayed (again). This excellent post from LGC's Allister Hayman explains why.



I think that the accountability conundrum is a particularly interesting one. We are moving into a world where governance is becoming more complex than ever before. Certainly the proposals around giving increased power to local people - through referenda etc - will have an obvious, high profile impact. But the impact may also be felt in the transfer of responsibilities away from traditional democratic fora (such as local authorities) towards more ad hoc groupings of people and organisations. We have seen this in recent years in the development of partnership working in local areas, which in many places has been opaque at best. Local authorities and their partners will really need to think carefully about accountability, openness and transparency as they radically redesign services - and central government will also need to be alive to the issues as it devolves power beyond local government to all sorts of other bodies.

Thanks Ed, I totally agree and we are embarking on a project here at IfG that's trying to make sense of the emerging accountability landscape. For example, much of the language from government talks of devolving power to "communities" but it is unclear what this means for accountability. Also, there is a great deal of talk of transparency as an alternative accountability mechanism but without some form of recourse, transparency is a one-way street.

Both the Local Government Ombudsman and the Planning Inspectorate in effect support almost anything a council does. Tiny fines are imposed when 'form' has been breached, but daft decisions that a whole community disagrees with are upheld.

WDDC intended to build an estate in Lyme Regis on unstable ground. A famous author tipped the balance against them. That and the fact that the ground had streams running through it, and two previous developments had been damaged by land slip. But the report from the inspectorate praised a stupid decision by what is widely regarded as an incompetent council, in glowing terms.

The letter from the inspectorate started with the words 'It is my great honor', which says it all. Rather than control incompetent councils, bodies like this help them reinforce their own myth.

Thanks Adrian,

Picking up your point about the mass empire building within DWP. Removing housing benefit from local authority control and centralising it within DWP goes completely in the face of localism. Housing Benefit is a local benefit, which could have been reformed to link in with landlord accreditation schemes to improve housing standards within local areas.

The DWP actually state within their new business plan that they will not hold onto power ineffectively and will devolve responsibilies to local people where appropriate. Incredibly they actually cite the example of devolving the structure of council tax benefit to local authorities. What a joke!

Local Authorities are are best placed to understand local needs, local people and deliver local services that customer’s value. They have demonstrated that they are actually very good at processing benefits (just compare their performance with DWP and HMRC).

Many councils already receive new applications over the web and offer face to face appointments, where claims can be processed there and then with the customer. This makes the customer journey lean and efficient, significantly reducing repeat contact.

Localising Universal credit within Local Authorities would have been the truly radical and progressive option.

Instead I fear we will end up with one giant moolithic organisation delivering benefits under the standard 'one size fits all' approach. Thats certainly what happens now with all DWP administered benefits.

One big blow for localism!

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