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Definition and delivery of 'localism' a postcode lottery across Whitehall

9 June 2011

The Government’s desire to deliver localism is neither supported consistently across Whitehall nor implemented coherently by each department of state, says the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee.

MPs also warn that the ministers have so far produced no compelling vision of what their imagined localist future will look like.

Launching a report examining the Government's intention to decentralise power and decision-making to communities and local agencies, Clive Betts, Chair of the CLG Committee says:

"The Government has to be clear about what type of localism it wants to pursue. At present there is no generally agreed definition of the term that helps everyone understand, for example, what the future role of local government will be. Consequently, most Government departments have adopted whatever definition of 'localism' suits their aims, and some key areas of policy remain notably more centralised than others."

MPs warn that the Minister for Decentralisation will need to bring coherence, rigour and clear priorities to the Government's programme for localism and the committee pledges to monitor closely how well he succeeds in doing this.

In addition, MPs call for a more explicit statement about where the dividing line will be drawn between a central, light-touch framework for local services and unwarranted interference from ministers in local affairs. So far, the committee says, the Government has shown itself all too eager to impose its preferences on local decision-making. Clive Betts adds:

"The litmus test for delivering a more localist political culture will be how ministers react to devolved decisions they dislike. If the Government persists with a policy of 'guided localism' it will undermine the whole decentralisation project."

The committee also observes that ministers have so far implemented policies that circumvent rather than empower local government and notes that these changes will make it more difficult to join up services in a particular area. Clive Betts says:

"A raft of Government policies-including elected police commissioners, free schools, academies and health service reform- threaten to fragment rather than integrate delivery of better public services at local level.

The Government's Community Budgets programme is intended to promote service integration, but few departments in Whitehall have so far proved willing to devolve budgetary control far or fast enough to permit localism along these lines to flourish."

The committee also warns that as devolution proceeds, the manner in which local decisions are taken come under greater scrutiny. Any reduction in the inspection and performance management required by Whitehall must be accompanied by stronger local democratic accountability.

Clive Betts adds: 

"At present too many people feel ignored when key decisions are taken about local services and priorities. Local councillors will need to work harder to improve accountability to local people, but the Government should not be seeking to dictate methods of local accountability from the centre. Tools like local referendums are too blunt to enable communities to express nuanced views on complex issues".

Broadening the provider base for public services is an important plank of the government's decentralisation agenda, but the committee believes it remains unclear how far the 'Big Society' can expand to take on services and functions shed by statutory bodies.

The Chair added: 

"Lots of small voluntary groups do an excellent job for their communities but many face cuts to their funding. Communities vary in the time, skills and resources they have at their disposal, and so there is a risk of some faring much better than others. We cannot assume community groups will want to move into core service provision and procurement processes will need to change if these organisations are to compete against large commercial service companies."

Lastly, MPs caution that localism should not be adopted purely as a way to curb public sector costs, not least because the financial benefits of more tailored services may not offset the loss of efficiencies of scale. MPs also warn that stimulating greater democratic participation and civic activism will itself cost money if it is to be successful and sustainable.

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