Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
It was hardly one of the most exhilarating tasks for a junior Minister, piloted the Inquiries Bill through the House of Commons as I did last year – maximum procedural detail, minimal interest from the media or the wider public.
My understanding of public inquiries had been of their varied tradition in British policy-making, tending to focus on very particular subjects relating either to new proposals or developments, or events causing public concern. So when the announcement came that Sir Michael Lyons’ Inquiry into the financing of local government would be broadened to include the deeper issues of functions, indeed the whole basis of local service provision, many were surprised that such inherently political questions would be given to an independent adviser to lead on.
In many ways, Sir Michael’s endeavours feel less like an ‘Inquiry’, and more like a Royal Commission – unfashionable though these have become in recent times. The whole exercise will take a great deal of deep thinking, evidence, resource and time – at least until the end of 2006. So with local government reform held in abeyance until Sir Michael’s ruminations are resolved, now is a golden opportunity to look at the bigger picture, kick around new ideas and even think the unthinkable.
It would be remiss of NLGN not to step ahead of this process and begin to predict the options and choices facing Sir Michael, what might be possible and what might be off-limits or impractical. That is why we have announced our own review of the functions, form and finance for local government. Pacing Lyons: Forecasting the Shape of Local Government will be a series of seminars, discussions, essays and papers culminating in our final recommendations and predictions of where the Lyons Inquiry could and should go.
With the Schools White Paper and other changes pointing to the ‘commissioning’ role for local councils, how exactly could such a hands-off approach strengthen rather than weaken the authority of and interest in local democracy? How can constitutional reform improve the relationship between central and local decision-makers? If there really is going to be a ‘zero-based budget’ flavour to the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, will councils retain local service funding responsibility for their current array of activities, or should new tasks and responsibilities come on board? And if, as we expect, council revenue to be still based largely on a progressive property tax of sorts, what will this look like? Will council tax benefit reform integrate with the wider tax credit agenda?
Such questions are difficult and knotty, requiring evidence from both practical experience and sound principle before answers are reached. Now that there is a general consensus – even across the party divide – that localism is the best approach to pursue, those of us who advocate the devolution of power away from Whitehall should lobby hard for real political bravery. It is too easy for the centre to pay lip-service to localism while simultaneously reaching for the grand levers of power whenever a ‘crisis’ occurs. I am pleased that the broad policy canvass has been placed before Sir Michael. This provides a real opportunity to help paint the picture of what a New Localist settlement could look like if ministers are prepared to be courageous.