Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
There wasn’t a Local Government Bill announced in this week’s Queen’s Speech – not really surprising as Gordon Brown announced his legislative programme for the first time earlier in the summer. So does this mean the Government has nothing new to say about localism and devolution in England? While we would have preferred a Bill designed specifically to reform the command-and-control nature of Whitehall’s long-standing relationship with democratically-elected local authorities, perhaps such a ‘big bang’ revolutionary change is a step too far to achieve in a single change to the law.
Changing the culture of the way we are governed and moving towards the concept of delegated decision-making throughout the country requires a consistent and long-term overhaul in the way our public services are managed. No single piece of legislation from one Secretary of State can achieve this; it will require a complete rethink of how decisions are taken, reaching from every spending department, into the Treasury and up to the very highest levels of Government. The Queen’s Speech listed Bills to reform housing, transport, criminal justice, planning, carbon emissions and skills – all laudable objectives, yet in each area it will be creative thinking from empowered local leaders that should achieve results far more effectively than could ever be achieved by central guidance and entreaties. There were, however, some signs that the Government recognises the deep-seated nature of change necessary in order to deliver a stronger public realm throughout the country.
First, a draft Bill on ‘Constitutional Renewal’ is due to be published in early 2008 and then given pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament throughout that year. The stated aims of this draft Bill are nothing less than the ‘rebalancing of power’ in the UK – but to date this appears confined to the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, in other words, not extending beyond SW1. We believe that any Bill on a topic as crucial as ‘constitutional renewal’ must address the relationship between the citizen and those they elect to make decisions at every level affecting their lives, not simply on the national plain.
Second, a Home Office Bill on Citizenship and Immigration will also be published in draft form. Although most media attention will fall on the second half of this Bill, the citizenship elements could offer localists some hope. Four weeks ago the little-noticed ‘Goldsmith Review of Citizenship’ was announced, looking not only at UK identity and residency concerns but also into “the role of citizens and residents in civic society”. Engaging people in the way decisions are taken and ensuring they feel it worthwhile to participate, to vote, to pay their taxes, are all essential parts of considering the nature of citizenship today.
Those of us who believe in the devolution of power into the hands of the many and not the few should step up and urge the fundamental cultural reforms we feel are now necessary. If these two draft Bills represent the best legislative opportunity for the year ahead then we need to engage the Government and ensure they act.