The Labour Government sought to bore local government into submission. Local democracy was emasculated with thousands of mind-numbing directives spewing out of Whitehall. These are now being swept away. Councils, including Labour councils, are being given more room to make their own decisions. Labour councillors haven't sent Eric Pickles a thank you note. But they have, a bit late in the day, conceded that the Labour Government approach wasn't the best application of localist principles.
One Nation Localism is published by the LGA Labour Group and is the result of many interviews with Labour councillors. It says "the Labour Government saw local government as largely a delivery function of the centre’s priorities." Amusingly it laments that Labour's "centre-led localism", while naturally having the most "benign" of motives, had some "unintended consequences."
It goes on:
The relationship would be a partnership, but not necessarily of equals. Central government would define a tight operating framework and national standards, which would set out expectations for local authorities to manage. Over time there developed an increasing number of duties placed on local authorities; targets linked to departmental public service agreements; a plethora of different funding streams tied to the different initiatives local authorities delivered; and a complicated performance assessment framework supported by a burgeoning bureaucracy, so that the centre could monitor outcomes locally.
The report says:
The ever-growing and sometimes competing demands of central government upon local authorities to report back diverted resources away from the frontline and ‘up’ the governance hierarchy. A technocratic language of public service objectives and prioritisation dominated: achievements in this bureaucratic landscape proved difficult to translate in a meaningful way to the public, who could, for example, be forgiven for not fully appreciating the benefits of living in a local authority that had been awarded “Beacon Status”.
If the punters were confused by "Beacon Status" what were they supposed to make of "Centre-led localism"?
In a devastating comment, the representative body of Labour councillors now say the Labour Government "encouraged councils to be little more than administrative outposts accountable to central government, as opposed to democratically elected decision-making institutions accountable to their residents."
Part of the approach was the "stakeholder" nonsense which diluted the electorate (despite the most "laudable" of motives…)
The report says:
Local authorities were required to form Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) with local community groups, voluntary organisations, the private sector and other public bodies, which were later the vehicles for forming Local Area Agreements (LAAs) between the centre and an area about service priorities. Locally elected representatives were merely one of a range of different local ‘actors’, others of which could well be unrepresentative of or unaccountable to the whole community. Who local authorities formed relationships with, how, and to what end, were prescribed in detail from the centre.
This also meant, the Labour councillors have now discovered, that "a growing bureaucracy was needed to manage the increasingly complex system of centre-led policy priorities and performance assessment. This created new locations of power and responsibility apart from local authorities as democratically accountable institutions."
New policy units in Whitehall sprang up to encourage more joined up working between Government departments. Regional tiers of governance were created: Government Offices were central government’s representatives in the regions; Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) sought to improve economic performance and allocate funding from the centre; and a number of strategies with implications for local authority priorities were adopted at regional level – Regional Spatial Strategies, Regional Economic Strategies and Regional Housing Strategies.
Non-departmental public bodies (less fondly known as quangos) assumed a large amount of responsibility, for example the role of the Audit Commission was extended to carry out the emerging performance assessment framework, which culminated in the Comprehensive Area Assessment launched in 2009.
The report says there was an "increasing sense that these bureaucratic mechanisms lacked transparency and made decisions on behalf of people at a remove from them." The reason for that "increasing sense" may have been because it was true. "Certainly they proved weak targets to an incoming Tory-led administration that immediately abolished the very existence of a regional tier and set about a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, to very little public outcry at their absence".
Yes, I suppose, "very little public outcry" at the demise of the Regional Spatial Strategies is one way of putting it. Often understatement allows a point to be made all the more effectively. Yet there is something unheroic about these Labour council leaders remaining silent about the way local democracy was so diminished by their Government. There welcome for the restoration of local democracy from the current Government, by dispensing with so much of the red tape, is left implicit.