James Morris is Member of Parliament for Halesowen and Rowley Regis. Follow James on Twitter.
In its first two years the government has pursued a localism agenda which culminated in the passing of the Localism Bill which became law the end of last year. This has been combined with other initiatives – reforming the planning system, establishing local enterprise partnerships, abolishing regional spatial strategies – to create a whole new localist tool set for local government and local communities.
Yet are these tools being used? If you talk to people in local government they say nothing much has changed; that the centralising link that binds them to Whitehall has not been severed. There is a sense among those who work in local government that is it pretty much business as usual – the institutional small ‘c’ conservatism of local government is reasserting itself.
There are exceptions. In some local authorities Elected leaders and Chief Executives are seeing the possibilities inherent in the general power of competence and the community right to challenge provisions of the Localism Bill; but the innovators and pioneers are a small club. In communities there is a sense that despite the government’s rhetoric of decentralisation the gap between local government and the communities they are meant to serve is as wide as ever.
Some people argue that, paradoxically, to push forward the localism agenda central government needs to do more in terms of radical legislation; but this falls into the trap of what I would call the ‘centralising fallacy’. The idea that if only the Department of Communities and Local Government and Parliament could craft the perfect piece of localising legislation then the potential of localism would be unleashed. This ‘centralising fallacy’ misses the point.
In order to put momentum into the localism agenda it is not more legislation or central initiatives that we need. There are still plenty of those. The NAO estimated that in the single month of March 2012 750,000 emails were sent by central government and its agencies to local government. What is needed is a profound behavioural and cultural change across all levels of government. The localism agenda will only succeed in achieving its potential if there are cultural changes in Whitehall, within local government itself and within the communities that central and local government are meant to serve.
Fifty years of relentless centralisation have created a risk averse culture within local government which means that, even when the tools for change are made available, there is a fatalistic acceptance that the centre will always hold sway. So how do we challenge the cultural orthodoxy which is holding localism back?
Local government leaders (and I mean political leaders) need to be in the vanguard of change – challenging the small ‘c’ conservatism of local government officers and Whitehall officials and encouraging innovation in the communities they serve. In order to help drive this change incentive plans need to be developed which reward local government officers for innovation and appropriate risk taking.
Similarly in Whitehall civil servants need to be incentivised to decentralise. A recent NAO report cited the Whole Place pliots as examples of where civil servants across Whitehall have collaborated among themselves and with local government to shape localist policies across a range of issues around family intervention and other areas of social policy. We need more of this approach. Civil servants career progression should be evaluated on their ability to work in this way. Reward in the civil service should be geared to giving power away in creative and imaginative ways not in hoarding it at the centre. The whole place approach with properly devolved community budgets with genuine pooling of resources should become the default policy approach across the broad spectrum of services provided by local government.
We also need to see a much more radical application of the Community Right to Challenge freedoms in the Localism Bill. Local government needs to see this as an opportunity not a threat and should be actively encouraging local community groups to come forward with imaginative proposals to provide local services.
The general power of competence at the heart of the Localism Bill gives local authorities unprecedented freedom of action. Yet, we need to go further. In order to turbo charge localism we need to define constitutionally the relationship between central and local government so that we define the role of local government not just as a delivery arm of central government but as an independent, localising force.
Local Councillors and Members of Parliament need to be champions of localism in their communities – providing the links, information and tools to allow communities to embrace the possibilities of the localism agenda. Councillors and MP’s need to generate examples of success to generate momentum. Community Right to Challenge needs to be brought alive in communities right across the country not remain as an unused provision in a dense and complex Act of Parliament.
If we are to turbo charge the localism agenda it is not new laws we need. Instead those of us who believe in the value of localist future need to prod, cajole, incentivise, nudge and often implore Whitehall, town hall and communities to take the tools now available and use them to shape a better future .