Nigel Keohane and Liam Scott-Smith of the New Local Government Network herald the renaissance of local democracy
The forthcoming Localism Bill could represent a seminal moment in the history of the balance of power in this country. It promises to give control to neighbourhoods to decide on planning decisions and take responsibility for housing in their local communities; devolving responsibility for economic growth from regions to localities; it introduces more opportunities for citizens to have their say on government decisions through referenda.
Many local councillors, indeed many local people will be cheering on specific elements of the bill – whether it is the removal of regional housing targets, a new era of transparency on where public money is spent, the ability to save valued local services through the ‘right to bid’.
There is also strong reason to applaud the Government’s commitment to strong and clear democratic leadership through directly-elected mayors. In a time of constrained budgets, difficult discussions on service priorities and economic transition, visionary and ambitious local political leadership is of primary importance.
Over the years, NLGN has been one of the leading advocates of elected-mayors, and our research suggests that around twice as many people can identify their directly-elected mayor as can identify council leaders indirectly-elected by their parties. Ensuring that these civic leaders have the requisite powers and discretion will be crucial to the development of bold and dynamic leadership – not to mention persuading the public to adopt in the mayoral model in the first place.
Perhaps the most symbolic of all the proposals in the Bill is the General Power of Competence. It is hard to believe that a limitation introduced in the 1850s to restrict the actions of railway bodies could come to constrain the actions of democratically-elected councils in the twenty-first century. Of the many canards that has been dreamt-up to obstruct this democratic and localist move has been the ludicrous spectre of local councils developing their own nuclear bombs. Never mind that such an action would be illegal; never mind that these councils are democratically-elected.
So, what is left to say or do? Should we look on the Bill as a culmination of the Government’s early drive to restructure public services and renew politics? Could the Government have pushed its localist credentials further?
First, as ever, the devil may be in the detail. The temptation always remains for Parliament to define very closely a new set of freedoms for innovation at the local level and to retain some ultimate control on inappropriate action at the local level. This will never be stronger than in the General Power of Competence where secondary legislation could limit the choices open to local democracies. This temptation should be resisted at all costs. In fact, Parliament should seek to be more radical and look to provide greater discretion on varying existing local taxes – even if it wishes to preserve the right to raise new levies.
Second, local democratic renewal and citizen power require a fuller shift in control across the whole state. The Bill enshrines a new ‘right to bid’ for communities to save local services, and to assume responsibility and delivery themselves. Its aim is to open local council services fully up to contestability, ensure their responsiveness to citizens themselves and facilitate a range of ‘Big Society’ solutions where communities can deliver their own services.
If designed sensitively, this could be a force for good. But why stop here? What would happen if a community collectively sought to take greater responsibility for a service delivered by the NHS, DWP or Defra? Recent research has suggested that savings of ten to fifteen percent could easily be saved through such approaches. Surely, the ‘post-bureaucratic age’ should apply to Whitehall as well?
Devolution should not stop at councils – it should take place at all levels right up to the corridors of Whitehall. No part of the state should escape this radical shift of power to the people.