Liam Scott-Smith, Government Relations Manager at the New Local Government Network and an Exec Member of Bright Blue, says community ownership should be extended to break the stranglehold of the state
The Coalition’s Localism Bill is based on the soundest of principles. Often putting principle at the centre of policy development doesn’t lead to short term popularity but it does create solid foundations for future reform. At the core of the bill sits the ‘right to bid’. In short, this proposal makes it possible for local residents to take charge of their community through taking over local services. However, don’t be fooled
into buying into the oversimplification of ‘right to bid’ proposals. These represent more than just a transfer of service provider responsibility.
The ‘right to bid’ is a mechanism that changes mind sets and reminds people that the local institutions they use and the local services they benefit from belong to ‘them’ and not the local authority. The sense of ownership this proposal provides is crucial in encouraging the more responsible society the government wishes to see emerge.
It struck me that this sense of ownership and responsibility is a fundamental tenet of the public service spirit. The kind of spirit which moves a concerned resident to run for office, or the arm chair advocate into a community campaigner. The kind of spirit which brings communities together to tackle shared problems and ultimately share success.
Therefore, we should ask, why can’t the ‘right to bid’ be extended more broadly? In many parts of the public sector, the ethos of public services is strong. But, there is no reason why this should not be maximised and encouraged further and the entire public sector opened up to the concept of ‘ownership’. With this in mind why shouldn’t local councils be given the right to bid for services currently controlled by the centre on behalf of the communities they serve?
As an example, in the same way a local community group would develop a business plan that shows how they would run their local library at a lower cost, a council could feasibly draft a proposal to take control of their local job centres. The lessons from the pilots in community budgets were clear that there would be definite benefits to service quality and cost control if services could be integrated in a more coherent way at the local level. If local councillors feel their authority can run such a service more efficiently and with a greater entrepreneurial zeal than Whitehall then why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to do so?
I said at the start that the ‘right to bid’, and the Localism Bill more generally, are based on the soundest of principles. But such principles, to carry any weight at all, have to extend beyond the comfort zone of Whitehall. It is in holding true to these localist principles when the urge to centralise is at its greatest that the coalition government’s commitment to this agenda will ultimately be measured. Extending the right to bid in this way would give local councillors another way to engage in a serious policy debate and ultimately bring power one step closer to local people.