Power shift
21 September, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN

How fashionable is ‘localism’ at the moment? Wrestling power away from Whitehall and drawing decision-making down to the most relevant local level has gathered momentum as a popular concept within government and the opposition parties. But the test of true ‘new localism’ must surely be more than the degree of largesse shown by a superior authority to smaller units. The real test should be the extent to which big decisions are shared and whether the national-local power relationship is transformed.

Perhaps one good measure is the extent to which locally elected representatives have a visible role on the national political stage. I believe that there is now a great opportunity to reassert the importance of local governance – not only injecting fresh momentum into the freedoms and flexibilities agenda, but going further, increasing the prominence of local democracy at that national level.

Devolution is good, but it should not mean greater distance between the local and the national. We know that SW1 centralism cannot easily deliver responsive, sophisticated or tailor-made personal services. Yet simultaneously all political parties know they must set national priorities as part of the legitimate accountability process, realising manifesto policy objectives strategically across the country and fulfilling the electoral contract.

This dilemma presents us with the next step for local government reform; the time has come for local government to move onto the front foot, helping drive national policy, as well as delivering it at a community level. How best to bring local democracy into the heart of decision-making? Quite simply, local government needs a permanent place in our national legislature. We need national policy-making more closely informed by grassroots reality, and we need local authorities more connected into the heart of national policy debate.

The series of occasional bilateral meetings between Ministers and Local Government Association representatives via the ‘Central-Local Partnership’ are fine, but they only really scratch the surface of what is required. A more permanent shift of power is needed.

Having served for two years as a Minister with responsibility for constitutional issues, it is clear to me that House of Lords reform is gradually edging towards its last big change. Labour’s manifesto signals the need to improve the representative legitimacy of the second chamber, yet without jeopardising the pre-eminence of the House of Commons as the final deciding body. This apparent dilemma is tackled best by ‘indirect election’ – a model adopted in France and Germany amongst others. The need to enshrine the voice of neighbourhoods, regions and nations in our Parliament is surely accepted by all. That is why I would argue our second chamber needs a dose of diversity – not just gender or ethnic diversity, but ‘national diversity’ too.

The reformed House of Lords should include a strong proportion of representatives indirectly selected by local councillors – perhaps around a quarter of its total composition. Such a change would narrow the gap between central and local government while at the same time raising the stature and importance of local democracy. It would be a constitutional reform improving Parliament and giving our local representatives a greater say in our national debate.

Having recently been appointed as Director of the New Local Government Network, I look forward to my former parliamentary colleagues grasping the opportunity presented by the promise of a free vote on second chamber composition to consider this route seriously. Such a move would preserve Commons supremacy while improving parliamentary legitimacy, and enriches our local democracy at the same time. The renaissance of local government must see its status raised nationwide, and this change would achieve just that.