What potential is there for localism?

Is the government’s programme for Localism too elastic?

During a week in which we have seen a record low turn out for the election of the new Police and Crime Commissioners (described by the Electoral Commission as a ‘comedy of errors) with the new elected representatives holding a mandate of just between ten and twenty per cent (Telegraph, November 16th 2012), a warning that Ministers and Government departments may remain skeptical about whether localism can enhance economic growth and locally based clinical commissioning still rankles in some quarters (Public Servant, December 2012), what prospect is there for localism?

Last year, the Guardian argued (9th June 2011) that David Cameron’s plans to devolve power from Whitehall to local communities were in disarray and at serious risk of eroding the basic democratic principles of transparency and accountability. It was reporting on the influential parliamentary committee reports. In particular, the Communities and Local Government Committee – Third Report, published 9th May 2011 acknowledged that, on the surface,

“localism is an uncontroversial concept. The large majority of our witnesses were, with some caveats, appreciative of the Government’s intentions, enthused by the prospect of more powers being made available to local authorities, communities, and third sector organisations, and welcoming of more opportunities for citizens to influence how their services are designed and delivered”


The committee also noted that localism was far from a new idea.  However, it suggests that the Government’s approach in practice, has thus far been marked by inconsistency and incoherence, not helped by a definition of localism that is extremely elastic.   It provided examples as to how this has allowed individual departments to adopt definitions of localism that suit their other policy aims, rather than definitions that are internally consistent or developed in consultation with other stakeholders. Some policy areas remain notably more centralised than others.

There is not universal support for the idea that central government should retreat entirely from local affairs, allowing accountability to local people to replace performance monitoring from the centre (i.e. groups that work with vulnerable members of society).

 The government definition of localism consists of the following actions:
  •  To lift the burden of bureaucracy—by removing the cost and control of unnecessary red tape and regulation, whose effect is to restrict local action;
  • To empower communities to do things their way—by creating rights for people to get involved with, and direct the development of, their communities;
  • To increase local control of public finance—so that more of the decisions over how public money is spent and raised can be taken within communities;
  • To diversify the supply of public services—by ending public sector monopolies, ensuring a level playing field for all suppliers, giving people more choice and a better standard of service;
  • To open up government to public scrutiny—by releasing government information into the public domain, so that people can know how their money is spent, how it is used and to what effect; and
  • To strengthen accountability to local people—by giving every citizen the power to change the services provided to them through participation, choice or the ballot box

The terms ‘Big Society’, ‘localism’, and ‘decentralisation’ have been used inter-changeably. The three core components of the Big Society agenda have been defined by the Government as:

  • Empowering communities: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area;
  •  Opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services;
  • Promoting social action: encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active part in society, and promoting more volunteering and philanthropy
The democratic mandate of local authorities is crucial in securing acceptance of greater variation in services between areas.  Going to ‘the polls’ for the election of PCCs seems not to have worked and arguments continue to be made both in favour of and against, local and regional delivery of economic recovery, planning and the commissioning of health services.
Whatever the inconsistencies are in relation to encouraging more local delivery and accountability, the encouragement must continue and the public given a greater collective sway in decision making on what matters most in public service delivery.

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