Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director, NLGN
The Municipal Journal
Continuity or change? Whether on Iraq, or housing, Gordon Brown has already shown that he can deliver both without contradiction. So is there a continuity and change programme for local government and what does it mean for the direction set by the local government white paper?
There will not be an alternative white paper; that would mean breaking continuity with past. Instead the new priorities are in the Sub-national review of economic development and the constitutional reform white paper.
Governance of Britain describes the white paper as the ‘first step’ to ‘empower local communities’. The report gives a further push to joining up delivery at local level emphasising the role of LAAs in defining the priorities for an area. Including LAAs in constitutional reform opens the door to an argument made by NLGN in our 2006 report Pacing Lyons: route map to localism. LAAs should become a contract between citizens and the local state debated annually in every council. Constitutional backing could empower LAAs to draw down more authority from central government.
The Sub-national review (SNR) has given substance Lyons’ argument, echoed in the white paper, that councils have a duty to lead on economic development. The review cuts away the grey zone in which the choice between centralisation and devolution can be fudged. In principle Brown has accepted that success depends on devolution. The delivery vehicle will be MAAs reinforced with promises to consider new statutory arrangements that strengthen local economic leadership. To avoid failing its own test of success central government now needs local councils to come forward with concrete proposals for local economic leadership. That is the chance to show why further powers must be devolved from Whitehall.
The constitution white paper also accelerates the pace of change on citizen empowerment. Proposals for a duty to consider petitions and for delegating budgets to communities extend the implications of the community call for action. Local government should seize the chance of locking into constitutional reform a model that reconciles citizen empowerment with strong representative democracy.
NLGN have argued petitions could be strengthened if councillors were required to vote on specific resolutions where they had gained a minimum number of local signatures in a petition. This would allow citizens to set the agenda, while re-affirming the authority of the ballot box.
On devolution from the town hall, NLGN have argued that using a separation of powers between executive and front line councillors could deliver the change that Brown is seeking. Executives should be required to propose a devolution package of powers and budgets. Front line councillors alone should have the power to vote on it.
If councils respond to Brown’s agenda with concrete plans the concern is that the Whitehall machine will resist; even when Ministers are minded to agree. That is why proposals for strengthening Parliament are so valuable. The more that Parliament becomes the neutral arbiter in disputes between central and local government, the greater the chance for local leaders to win devolution by delivering better solutions to national challenges.
In Pacing Lyons NLGN argued that where central and local government cannot agree the details of LAAs or MAAs, Parliament should become the final arbiter on devolution. The white paper is a chance to deliver this change.
The proposals for improved Parliamentary scrutiny of Whitehall should be extended. Reorganisation of national public services should be debated by Parliament and the debate should be accompanied by a report on implications from local government.
Proposals for a civil service bill could be used to recognise that, like every other public service, Whitehall will benefit from external challenge. Local government senior managers should be at the heart of that challenge.
Lastly as House of Lords reform is developed there is a chance to shift the balance of power, locking in a localist perspective. As we argued in House of Lords reform for a purpose, if the final reform of the Lords includes any appointed members then local council leaders and mayors should be amongst that number.
Under Gordon Brown constitutional reform and economic development are the gateways to devolution. With a Prime Minister committed to substance we will gain most when we show through concrete example that the Prime Minister’s national goals are best met by giving local government the tools to finish the job.