Forward Thinking
27 October, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

There are certain buzzwords that cause groans of cynicism in some quarters, chief of which is “partnership”. Perhaps because years of public policy reform have finally drummed into all organisations the blindingly obvious importance of “joined-up thinking”, or perhaps it is because cross-organisational working is now so commonplace that it doesn’t need constant restating.

Whatever causes this reaction, there can’t be much doubt that the realities of partnership are here to stay – and growing stronger with the speedy onset of Local Area Agreements. With a healthy set of LAAs now piloted and a significant batch of new agreements currently under negotiation, the direction of travel from the early days of Local Public Service Agreements to a broader community stewardship over a single-pot of public investment is absolutely clear.

A New Local Government Network conference on this very topic hopes to demonstrate not just ODPM but cross-government (and especially HM Treasury) enthusiasm for LAAs. In fact, it is essential that joined up local governance is supported with a joined up approach from central government for LAAs to work. In turn, these agreements should lead to innovation in service delivery and a focus on local people as service consumers rather than applying merely to collaboration at the edges of agency boundaries. They also need to see a reduction in duplication and inefficiency.

LAAs are the closest vehicle we’ve got for the exercise of community leadership in practice, with true partnerships setting strategic priorities owned by all the main players. Moreover, the Public Service Board model, in bringing together the most senior decision-makers from all the largest local spending agencies, should ensure partnership working has real power and clout.

So where does local democracy come into all this? While there is little criticism of the administrative benefits from LAAs, unanswered questions remain about legitimacy and ownership by local people. Local authorities, we are told, will be ‘first among equals’ in the LAA model. Yet while they will often lead the day-to-day negotiations, they will not have total control over their conclusions. A tacit veto power for a council might therefore be the ultimate lever to reach for. But surely there should be a recognition that local government has greater local weight because of its popular mandate? LAAs are a step forward in ensuring service providers come together in harmony in each district.

Perhaps the next brave step would be to democratise the process, placing some of the locally unaccountable agencies directly into the control of elected councils. Now that Sir Michael Lyons’ Inquiry is considering local government functions, he would do well to recognise the potential significance of his recommendations for both community leadership and true ‘joined-up’ government.