Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle
In his interview with LGC last week, David Miliband once again took the opportunity to affirm the Government’s commitment to the neighbourhood agenda. He argued it is encouraging that around 160 councils are introducing neighbourhood management, despite the fact that there are only 35 actual pathfinders.
It is also true that the vast majority have introduced some form of area working. These range from Area Forums which are primarily consultative to Area Committees mainly involving councillors and concerned with council issues, and Area Partnerships or mini-LSPs which involve a wider range of stakeholders to the radical decentralisation of partnerships, decision-making and some services, as with Birmingham’s ‘Going Local’ scheme.
All of this augers well for the emerging neighbourhoods agenda, whatever form it may take. It shows councils seeing the benefits of devolving locally, and trying out new ways of working which often challenge traditional service silos, management structures and assumptions about levels of service.
However, a challenge also exists for councils in being clear about what they are trying to achieve through these various new structures, and how the system joins up in a cohesive whole. Research by NLGN into locality working in Birmingham, Wakefield and West Sussex, Councils embracing localism, has found these councils working via new area structures highly informed by local circumstances and history.
Such arrangements do not go as far as the Government’s neighbourhood agenda might aspire, in terms of direct citizen engagement and empowerment. But they do create positive conditions for working at the neighbourhood level. For example, budgets and decisions are located more locally and hence can be more responsive to the needs of lower spatial levels. Councillors are engaged with communities, and partners can be involved in partnerships below the overarching LSP.
Area structures can also take some responsibility for overseeing more local bodies, using influence over council and partner services to secure local outcomes and liaising between different levels. Wakefield described a “clear line of sight” from its LSP through to its Local Area Partnerships, ensuring a joined up approach. The next stage of the jigsaw then might be to push this line of sight one stage further, down to neighbourhood arrangements.
The effective functioning of area arrangements therefore, may be a condition for success at more local levels. But it should not be seen as a separate agenda. The Government is right to be encouraged by the fact councils are already developing new forms of locality working, but should not focus on these to the exclusion of other arrangements. Neighbourhoods alone are not enough: they must be joined up as part of a larger local governance system, with councils taking responsibility for fitting the jigsaw together.
Councils embracing localism is available from email@example.com, price £21.25 (inc p&p)