Towards a New Localism: a discussion paper

In January 2000 the NLGN started a major project to explore ways in which a new localism could be created in England. The project has been undertaken by Gerry Stoker, Greg Wilkinson, John Williams and Geoffrey Filkin, who led it.

We undertook this work over a six-month period, preparing ten policy papers that were discussed in a series of policy workshops attended by over 150 stakeholders within local government. Many local authority members, officers and policy specialists worked with us on particular topics, contributed to the policy workshops and commented on draft reports.

We started by reviewing the original diagnosis of what the Labour Government thought needed to change to bring about more responsive and effective local government and then attempted to assess what might be the likely outcomes of the first phase of modernisation. In a phrase, would modernisation work?

From this initial analysis we identified the need for any government to be much clearer about the role, purpose and value of local government. This meant being more than an agent to deliver central government’s policies. In this paper we set out our suggestions of what this new role could be.

We then explored a range of other topics, looking at political and managerial leadership, democratic renewal, service transformation and the structure of government at regional, sub-regional, local and neighbourhood level. In addition a central theme of our work was that good policies are of little value unless there are effective ways of implementing them. Hence, we see issues of leadership and motivation as central to successful institutional change.

We completed this phase of our work this summer and now wish to publish our initial conclusions to open up discussions within local government, all political parties, the LGA, SOLACE and other professional bodies. We would welcome discussions with a wide range of national organisations too.

The diagnosis and prescriptions contained within this report are in a formative stage and will benefit from debate and development.

We hope this report provides a good starting point for debate about the future of local government and we look forward to engaging in it.


New localism
Unless we have the capacity to make things happen in localities then the social and economic objectives of our country will not be achieved. We live in a world where international and national actions often seem dominant, yet these need to be matched with a local capacity. People can and should be involved in finding solutions to the problems of their rural and urban communities. They have to be able to identify their own needs and contribute to finding solutions, rather than feel powerless in the face of an over centralised state. Representative and participative democracy and a host of other forms of local civic life are essential for a vibrant and socially inclusive society. Many people already make a contribution through their involvement in school boards, voluntary associations and community activities. We need local governance that is strong, open and flexible enough to support and underwrite these activities.

It is not possible to govern Britain from Whitehall alone and attempting to do so increases the public’s alienation from government and politics. The Performance and Innovation Unit Report Reaching Out and a sequence of Social Exclusion Reports show that parts of central Government are now recognising this. It is vital to have a strong capacity at local level for leadership, to join up governance, to take initiatives and deliver on the ground if some of the most complex social and environmental challenges of our society are to be tackled. Villages, towns and cities differ significantly in their needs and priorities, and government needs to be able to reflect these differences. We need therefore to build local governance which has the capacity to work with others to make a significant difference to the quality of life and opportunity in localities.

These truths have received insufficient attention from central government for much of the last three years and for most of the last half century. An activist and enabling government is difficult without a local governance capacity. The government has found that policies implemented from the centre without local leadership, commitment and motivation often fail. Complex, crosscutting issues cannot be addressed from Whitehall alone and central government has frequently failed to join up its own policies and implementation. This makes the capacity to join up at local level even more important. Yet central government has seen local government primarily as a means to deliver its own policies, as its agent. But local government seen primarily as an agent of the centre is a contradiction in terms, and if this view persists, then in time local government will cease to exist, for people will not bother to vote or stand for election.

We celebrate what has been done in recent years to put in place a reform platform for local government, the establishment of a broad consensus around the need for change and the progress that is being made in most local authorities to modernise; significant improvements are being made by many. Our assertion of the need for a new localism is to support and strengthen the efforts of many in local government to revitalise local political and management institutions to make a difference on the ground. We recognise that this requires major cultural and behavioural shifts which need strong support. As part of this, many authorities recognise the need to transform the perceptions of the public about local service delivery and to deliver community leadership that comes alive in action that people will notice.

What role?
Central government needs to affirm that the core role of local government is community leadership, involved with everything that concerns the public locally, whoever is “responsible” for it. The local authority should be the guardian of the public realm, the champion and protector of consumers, the supporter of social citizenship goals and of civic society and the promoter of the economic and social health of the community and of inclusive and cohesive local communities. Community leadership, defined in this concrete way is, in many respects, more challenging than the production of services and local authorities will need to shift their focus and their culture to realise it.

The concept of community leadership and a commitment to a decentralised politics will need to be owned and promoted strongly by all political parties, whether in government or opposition. It also requires local government to be able to undertake it in practice. This will require motivation and support to bring it about.

Transforming access
We are convinced that over a five-year period it is possible to transform the public’s experience of accessing local government. We suggest specific performance improvements that should be achieved by 2005. Local government has to succeed at this transformation for it to be credible in the role of community leadership and if is to retain a role in service delivery in the face of radical new alternatives. Good examples of innovation are taking place in leading local authorities. However, the national policy and processes for promoting e-government at the local level look weak. The Best Value regime will need to support local authorities deliver the step changes that are possible. We suggest policies to bring about this transformation including the need to promote competitive supply markets, achieve economies of scale, make effective use of assets, empower consumers, promote joint procurement and create public/private sector service delivery vehicles.

Motivating change
Powerful motivators for change are needed to promote modernisation, to support leaders and chief executives change their councils to embrace the new role of community leadership, to achieve the step-changes in services that are possible and bring about the major cultural change this will require at member and officer level.

Community leadership will require local authorities to identify the needs of their communities and develop creative strategies to address them, often over a five-year period. To promote this we propose a new system of Partnership Contracts, which would incorporate Local PSA’s, Beacon Councils and the whole panoply of specific bids and challenges.

Councils would develop a Partnership Contract proposal with their local communities setting out how they intend to address the social, environmental and economic needs of their localities, supported by stakeholders to deliver major improvements over a five-year period. As part of this local government would show how they would deliver on central government targets, as in Local PSA’s. Central government would then enter into a Partnership Contract with the council to support the delivery of local objectives and national targets.

A Partnership Contract would last for five years, giving on average, £8 million extra grant each year for the council, plus other central government support to achieve its local strategy. Such a system would provide a powerful motivator for the achievement of community leadership and service transformation. Within four years most local authorities could be benefiting from Partnership Contracts funded from the Performance Reward Fund within the Spending Review 2000.

The pace of future change requires concerted attention to how the human and developmental agendas are managed positively. The resources and programmes to do this need to be reviewed as well as how local government is to attract and retain the quality of management and graduates it will need for the future.

Leaders also need to be able to make a difference. We suggest additional optional sources of funding including a tourism tax, lane rentals and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) to increase business and pubic involvement in the priorities and plans of their council.

Leadership representation and accountability
Community leadership will require good leadership from members and officers, an external focus, and skills to listen, partner and deliver. We do not think central government should impose elected mayors, rather that the public should decide. Central government should merely ensure that in the major cities, where leadership is so crucial, referendums are held within two years. Next if we want good leadership we will have to pay for it. Leaders of major local authorities should get similar pay, pensions and support as MPs. We need also to value, attract and develop good managerial leadership which is vital to local implementation of change and joining up at executive level. We need to differentiate councillors’roles and to reduce the numbers, whilst increasing the involvement of the public and representatives through promoting neighbourhood governance or other forms of involvement where people can participate without signing half their lives away.

Mayors and leaders should be able to bring in talented people from the voluntary and business sectors to take up a portfolio of responsibility within the cabinet, subject to approval by the council and Nolan principles.

Accountability needs to be strengthened. Local authorities should conduct an audit of decentralisation and review the scope for neighbourhood management. Government should introduce universal postal voting, abandon the extension of annual elections, promote costed manifestos setting out what a party will achieve if elected and introduce PR at least in councils which have elected mayors.

The programme of reform should also address issues at regional and sub-regional levels, but we are concerned about the time involved in forming new institutions. There is a pressing need to tackle the problems of excessive centralism, that results from attempts to run local and regional affairs from Whitehall. But initially non-structural solutions should be implemented. Sub-regions whether in city regions or rural areas are where most actions are needed. A range of policies to promote joint action, building on existing local authorities and regional institutions, could be implemented immediately whereas elected regional government could take five years to happen. There should be an enhanced role for parish and town councils and an assumption of delegation so that as far as possible, villages and neighbourhoods are able to decide or influence things that matter to them.

There needs to be informed discussion about the options for effective regional governance, and the answer may vary between parts of the country. We are not persuaded that the current models of elected regional government are necessarily the best means of achieving this, but we remain open minded about the case for elected regional institutions in the future.

We recognise the strength of feeling about central rule from Westminster and Whitehall. The country needs a governance capacity at neighbourhood, local, sub-regional and regional levels as well as at national level. We argue for a revitalised local government to lead the way. There may be scope for other elected bodies where there is strong public demand, but these should be streamlined, open and visible in their accountability to the public.

In rural areas we suggest there should be no change to the two-tier shire structure for the next five years but that action is needed now to make governance work better in these areas and address rural challenges. Community leadership is needed at a variety of levels; for some functions counties should lead such as developing strategic visions for the wider area, service commissioning and e.government. Partnership Contracts should be used to promote much better joint working in shire areas. At the end of the five years there might be a case for rationalising the two-tier system.

Changing national behaviour
None of this vision of a revitalised local government will come about without significant changes in attitude and behaviour at national level. Above all central government will have to develop a collective commitment to decentralisation, re-enforced by a structure that promotes it. We suggest a Department for Devolution and Decentralisation with responsibility for the Scotland and Wales offices and the regional and local functions of the DETR. It must act to limit the never-ending range of individual initiatives and interventions from central departments and to give support to the implementation of a new localism.

A Local Government Renewal Fund should be established to support significantly increased investment in product and service development in local government and researching what works best, to promote innovation awards and investment to save.

A Public Service Career covering all who work in central and local government and health or provide service to it, should be developed which ensures that managers work both locally and nationally, and in policy formation and implementation.

We believe that there is a large measure of agreement about the goals of a modernised system of local government; the debate is about the best means to get there. We look forward to an informed and reflective debate with local and central government and others about these suggestions about how best to achieve the strong accountable and creative local government we all want.

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