Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director, NLGN
The new Prime Minister is already making moves towards devolution. Once again national figures are suggesting local government is part of the solution in policy areas like housing and economic growth. Wider legislation on constitutional reform is promised. The new tone gives local leaders reason to be optimistic; yet there is still a long way to go.
Supportive words from Westminster will influence local government’s long term strategy, but the long march to devolution requires as much effort as ever. However, in these new circumstances we may gain most not by asking what Gordon can do for us, but by showing what local government can do for him.
Of course there are questions to ask. Will the Prime Minister allow Chancellor Darling to deliver on Chancellor Brown’s positive responses to the Lyons report? How will Whitehall act on the operation of a supplementary business rate and retention of grants as a reward for success? What action will follow on smaller measures including serious cuts in ring fenced grants, challenging targets to cut national targets, reform of LABGI and even new thinking on assessing the full costs of duties imposed on local government?
When Lyons reported, both government and opposition parties in Parliament were stalemated, waiting for politics to unfreeze with the arrival of the new Prime Minister. Now all Parliamentary parties are eager for the devolutionary mantle.
Local leaders will need resilience to make the most of this opportunity. Merely asking what the Prime Minister will do for us leaves the initiative with Whitehall. Asking for action makes sense; relying on it does not. Instead local leaders should use the strength of their position, in government themselves, to try to set the agenda on devolution.
The momentum of existing national policy can be turned on Whitehall’s centralising instincts. Across a range of key policies central government has already conceded the intellectual case: it needs local government to deliver its promises.
Following the report of the Treasury sub-national review of economic development, local council leaders will have a central role in designing economic strategy. At DWP the new deal for welfare is built on the idea that local consortia, co-ordinated by local government, should be able to tailor solutions to local circumstances. Leaked reports on child poverty show that Whitehall has realised the new Prime Minister cannot reach his goals unless local government is able to take greater initiative. The new Health Secretary wants greater local responsiveness; councils can deliver the solution. In its head Whitehall knows that it needs to step back.
Responding to these conclusions by calling on Whitehall to act is simply trying to push local government further up the Prime Minister’s agenda. More effective is to show that local government is already the solution to the existing policy agenda.
Council leaders can use their position in government to bring together the key players on these issues to design real solutions for their communities. Producing practical solutions local government will also reflect the Prime Minister’s desire to put substance above spin. However, in each case it is likely that viable plans will reveal what local government has long known; the road block to success is the failure to devolve.
This could be a potent political tool. It would change the terms of local government’s debate with Whitehall. No longer trapped in the role of teenager asking for more rights; instead local leaders will be asking Whitehall to achieve the Prime Minister’s goals by doing less. In the face of tangible plans to deliver that agenda, the public may also start to ask why solutions to their concerns are being delayed.
But if local government is to gain greater freedom by demonstrating its role in solving national concerns, then it must ensure that the public hears the story and approves. That is second challenge for local leaders. Sometimes a straight line is not the shortest route. In seeking to influence national politicians the most convincing argument is that citizens share local government’s view. The priority for local leaders should be to demonstrate the engagement and support of their communities in pressing for devolutionary solutions to national problems.
In seeking help from the new Prime Minister, the most convincing argument will come from first convincing citizens of our case.