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.