Very successful Local Government conference yesterday organised by the think tank Reform. I asked the Shadow Communities Secretary Caroline Flint about whether a Labour Government would scrap the transparency requirement for councils to publish payments over £500. She indicated it would not. "The Pandora's Box has already been opened," she said. So the policy hasn't exactly been embraced by Labour – the term "pandora's box" is not a positive reference. But a welcome u-turn in that they no longer propose to reverse it and go back to the golden age when what our money was spent was kept secret from us.
I will post some more contributions later but the following was the speech from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles:
There’s nothing milk and honey about localism. There’s nothing easy about it – there’s no guidance manual. That isn’t really the point. Localism won’t deliver homogenous, bland, uniform public services. This is about pushing power outwards, downwards as far as possible. And all the possibilities that arise from local communities seizing that power. And taking on the responsibilities and the consequences of getting things right and getting them wrong. It’s the tooth and claw of power.
For the past decade or so everybody’s been singing in favour of localism – and it always sounds the same. No one could get enough of the grassroots and bottom up decision making. But in reality Secretary of States handed out their gold stars to councils doing a really good job at jumping through bureaucratic hoops. And wrote encouraging notes to the ones that were getting better at meeting central targets. We moved from local government making democratically accountable decisions – to local management of services.
But now councils are in the driving seat. And they can go their own way. This seems to alarm people. The most terrifying phrase that is thrown against the localism agenda is ‘postcode lottery’. There’s this idea that if public services are different in one part of the country from another because of localism – that’s inherently evil. This rather spurious argument seems to go that if differences arise by chance – that’s okay. But if we get different public services because people choose differently – then that’s not fair.
Well I don’t think rigid uniformity equalled fairness. And if local areas want to prioritise different services because that’s what suits their area’s needs, then that’s a good idea. We should become comfortable with the truth – that Cornwall is different from Canterbury, and Reading from Redcar – and Norfolk from just about anywhere else in the universe. So I’m happy for them all to drive off in different directions.
My role, the role of central government is to remove any obstacles and create the right conditions for local decision making. Our Localism Bill – currently in the House of Lords – will give councils the legal confidence to act in their residents’ best interests rather than relying on specific powers. Councils will get their ‘general power of competence’ – legal shorthand for cutting central government’s leash.
We've also cut red tape. Put an end to thousands of Whitehall targets, to monitoring and inspection. And we’re handing over control of the purse strings, ending ringfencing. Community Budgets are the start of councils and local areas getting a single pot of local funding from Government, to spend as they see fit. And retention of business rates will give councils a direct stake in the local economy.
Of course we will continue to protect the most vulnerable as we did in the financial settlement – which saw the most deprived areas continue to receive far more grant per head. But we will ensure all councils get the powers and incentives to do what local voters want them to do.
I still hear arguments that we can’t afford to do localism now. We have inherited a massive legacy of debt. The country’s credit card is maxed out. And as with a credit card bill, the longer you leave to pay it off, the worse it gets. So it’s true local government along with the rest of the public sector is playing their part in paying this debt off. And it’s a challenging time for councils. But that’s why we can’t afford not to do localism now. When times are tight, people deciding where the money is spent should be people who know and understand their communities – not me.
Councils’ revenue spending will still be over £53billion this year. It’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it. The best public bodies don't assume they have to do things the way they always have. Deliver the same old services. With councils getting this political and economic autonomy they can ask big questions about how services are run. And if they offer the best possible value to the taxpayer. And instead of salami slicing services and cutting the frontline, there’s a chance to deliver transformational change.
Joint working is crucial. No longer can council officers justify keeping unreformed sprawling empires for their own sake. They need to share services like HR, press, legal. Join up on procurement contracts. Combine chief executives – or scrap the post entirely. Many councils are already doing this but recent data – collated by Ipsos MORI on behalf of ICT services provider 2e2 – has revealed that at present, only 29 per cent of local councils currently share back office operations such as finance and HR. We can do better than that. And councils showing the way across the country.
In Sussex, Adur were one of the first councils to set up a partnership working scheme with neighbouring Worthing by sharing management services and a single Chief Executive. Four years on instead of resting on their laurels they have extended this to nearly all their services including bin collections, street cleansing, financial services, legal, planning, parks, IT, building surveying. With an annual spending power of just over £10m – Adur have already made over £2m in savings and anticipate ongoing annual savings of £1.5m.
Bury Council have taken the initiative on fraud after realising that nearly 70 per cent of blue badges they issued belonged to persons who were deceased. They drew up new procedures to cut down on any fraudulent abuse and save at least £4,000 a year. With the National Fraud Authority recently revealing that councils could save £2 billion a year improving their prevention, detection and recovery of fraud – every step like this is important.
Cornwall Council made sure that out of the £170m savings they identified within a week of the Comprehensive Spending Review, that £9 out of every £10 came from efficiency savings. Including streamlining their waste collection contracts from six to one council wide contract -saving £3m.
Adur, Bury, Cornwall – that’s an ABC of can do councils protecting the services their communities value with creative thinking. There’s many more. Which leaves me in no doubt that local communities have the talent and initiative to harness the new powers coming their way. And if people are still concerned that all this untrammelled freedom is going to leave councils answering to no one – let me reassure them.
I’m not removing accountability. But instead of being accountable to me, councils are accountable to their residents – their electorate. Transparency is at the heart of this – letting residents see for themselves where their tax money is going. All councils bar one are publishing their spending data over £500. The best remedy for discovering and stamping out fraud, waste and duplication. We are also working with local authorities to improve the way the data is published to make it more accessible and usable. Anyone who thinks asking councils to do this isn’t localism is missing the point.
Localism won’t work if councils just take all the power off central government – power needs to go as far out as possible. Something the recent Select Committee report didn’t seem to comprehend. Local people have got to be able to hold their local bodies to account and make sure their needs are being represented. Which is why the Localism Bill isn’t just about council freedoms. Residents will get to decide for themselves what their area looks like. Community groups will get new rights to save or take over treasured local assets like shops, pubs and post offices.And people will be able to hold local referendums on issues that matter to them
As this landmark Bill makes its way through Parliament, to anyone who is still complaining that it’s too centralist or not centralist enough – because I still hear complaints there isn’t enough guidance and direction. My message is it’s time to wake up. Because if you don’t localism will have moved on without you. Powers will have passed to local communities and they’ll be using them. They’ll be demanding action from their council too.
So it’s an exciting time to be in local government if you went in because you wanted to listen to people’s needs and act on them. Not so much if you just wanted to follow directions and get a pat on the back if you put the right tick in the right box. This is a time of big challenges and big opportunities. It’s not a time for sleepwalkers. Localism is happening and if you want to grasp it – the sky’s the limit.