On the 12 January the Institute for Government hosted a breakfast roundtable to discuss whether the government's Localism Bill lives up to its ambitions to decentralise power.
The bill contains a wide range of measures to devolve more powers to councils to give local communities greater control over local decisions such as housing and planning. Specific measures include:
- provisions for directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities in England
- new powers for residents to instigate local referendums on any local issue
- a new 'right to challenge' local state-run services.
On the panel were Lord Andrew Adonis, Lord Michael Bichard, and Tony Travers.
Diagnosing the problem
Participants began by trying to diagnose the problem the Localism Bill is seeking to address. To what extent local government is 'infantlised' and needs more power in order to realise localism?
Large sums of money pass through local government and it has influence over public services at a local level. It has therefore historically been seen as a significant player with which central government has had to work in order to get things done.
Nevertheless, participants questioned whether it could play a greater role in delivering a locally, rather than centrally, determined agenda with the powers currently at its disposal.
Some argued that the limited revenue raising power of local government undermines localism. Without reforming local government finance, decentralisation attempts add up to 'lipstick localism' (PDF, 156KB)
Previous attempts at localism
Participants did not identify new problems that local governments need to overcome if they are to play a greater role in shaping the local service landscape. The Localism Bill needs to be seen against the historical context of many governments' "talking a good talk" on localism and decentralisation but failing to deliver.
Under the Labour government, the idea of 'New Localism' and 'Communities in Control' were popular, and the state of local government finance was reviewed by the Raynsford and Lyons inquiries. Yet there were few radical reforms to match this interest.
Previous governments' localism rhetoric has not been matched with significant action. Participants questioned what would be different this time around.
Participants agreed the proposal to have a referendum on whether the 12 largest cities should have a directly elected mayor could potentially be quite radical.
It could advance the decentralisation agenda for two key reasons:
- Mayors offer the potential to consolidate the (remaining) power at a local level into one visible pair of hands. This could provide a 'bulwark' against central government.
- Mayors could have an impact on democratic engagement and voter turnout. It was suggested public interest in local democracy will only increase if a direct link between voting and making change happen is visible. A mayor could make this a reality and provide a way to sharpen local accountability.
Yet whether the mayors would have enough power was questioned. Without radical reform to local government, introducing mayors could be seen as a "cry of despair".
Mayors and Police commissioners: overlapping mandates?
The relationship between mayors and other elements of the government's reform agenda was discussed. Participants suggested that it was hard to see how the interaction between police commissioners and mayors will work out in practice, especially if the two figureheads have overlapping mandates.
The New Local Government Network has conducted research into the relationship between mayors and police commissioners (PDF, 1MB). Participants took further issue with the claim that Police and Crime Commissioners will strengthen local accountability.
Whilst mayors are a tried and tested reform which will only be introduced after a referendum, police and crime commissioners are being introduced by diktat without evidence to support the claim they will strengthen accountability.
Approach to public service reform
Participants also discussed the Localism Bill in relation to the government's overall fast moving reform agenda. The bill's proposals form part of a number of different decentralisation initiatives underway across government.
The initiatives aim to devolve power to different bodies and groups at different levels within and outside government. Participants raised a number of concerns with this approach.
Taking different approaches to decentralisation without incentivising collaboration across organisations carries the risk of services becoming more fragmented.
There is a danger that newly empowered smaller entities feel the need to compete to protect their sovereignty and independence. Yet we know that collaboration between organisations within the public, private and third sector organisations is essential in the provision of high quality public services.
2) A more complex accountability landscape
There is also a risk that adopting different approaches to decentralisation makes the local accountability landscape more confusing.
Currently, with separate organisations having different accountability systems it is often very difficult to understand who holds overall accountability for service delivery.
Participants raised concerns that fragmented nature of the approach to decentralisation could make this worse.
3) Weaker representative democracy
Creating local accountability mechanisms which do not necessarily operate through the ballot box could weaken the role of representative democracy in local areas.
Participants were asked how optimistic they were for the future. The consensus was there were some big challenges ahead which need to be addressed in order to make the decentralisation agenda work. Yet these challenges are not insurmountable.