Making sound government a local issue
13 September, 2007

Dick Sorabji, Deputy director, NLGN
Policy Review

Proposed constitutional reform will involve a shift away from central government control

In the four weeks between becoming Prime Minister and the start of the summer recess Gordon’s Brown’s government made 40 policy announcements. They did not have the words local government in the title. Yet a closer look at the core documents on which Brown is marking out his programme both for this government and the general election, show that his success will depend on empowering local government.

In Governance of Britain, the constitutional reform white paper, Brown pledged a new relationship between citizens and state. Being seen to give away power is politically attractive; the hard part is doing enough to satisfy expectations. There lies the opportunity for local government.

For example, local area agreements (LAAs) have become the framework for joining up public service locally. The local government white paper pledged to expand their role. Now Governance of Britain goes further including LAAs in constitutional reform.

NLGN argued in Pacing Lyons: a route map to localism that this could be achieved if LAAs became a contract between the citizens and the local state, debated annually in every council chamber with rights for citizens to act where the contract is not delivered.

If constitutional reform converts LAAs into a local contract with citizens, then in turn it will hugely strengthen the detailed arguments for devolution that are so often contained within them. Councils will have to raise their game to meet these new expectations.

Constitutional reform can unleash this self-reinforcing cycle of devolution in several areas. Giving more power to Parliament is a second opportunity. NLGN have argued that two reforms which empower Parliament will create a more level playing field between central and local government.

Parliament is the ideal neutral arbiter between local and central government. Disputes over the details of LAAs and their economic twin, multiple area agreements (MAAs), could be subject to a final decision by Parliament. The more that Parliament is arbiter in central-local disputes, the more that local leaders can win arguments for devolution when their solutions to national challenges are the most effective.

Brown’s promise of Parliament’s scrutiny of Whitehall would also be strengthened if all plans for reorganising national public services were first debated in Parliament and debate were informed by a report on implications from local government.

Constitutional proposals for a civil service bill offer another chance to change the balance of relationships between central and localities. The bill could recognise that, like all other public services, Whitehall would benefit from external challenge. Local authority chief executives are ideally equipped to contribute to that challenge.

These constitutional opportunities for devolution are mirrored by Brown’s key public spending report; the comprehensive spending review. CSR commissioned July’s Sub-national review of economic development. The Treasury realise that in a knowledge economy the £60 billion wealth gap across England’s regions will only close when local institutions have the discretion and authority to develop their own strategies. That has led John Healey to propose a duty on local government to deliver economic well-being.

Multiple area agreements (MAAs) provide the framework within which other proposals for devolution will be delivered. MAAs put local government centre stage in solving one of national government’s top priorities. Brown now needs local government to produce concrete plans for growth by June 2008. Those plans should demonstrate the case for devolving further power from Whitehall.

CSR also promises a transformation in the top-down target culture. As Chancellor, Brown developed Public Service Agreements to define national goals. Through CSR07 he is promising that as Prime Minister top-down targeting will be replaced by joined up accountability that frees public service to innovate and tailor local variations of national goals.

The CSR’s PSA targets and the forthcoming Audit Commission work on the local government performance framework the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) will test the quality of this promise. If Whitehall has not delivered on ministerial promises then local government will be able save national embarrassment by making the detailed case for devolution.

Governance of Britain and CSR will dominate the national agenda as Gordon Brown considers the timing of the next election. Both offer opportunities for devolution to local government. Firstly, the Prime Minister will be trying to ensure that his proposals have substance; local government can fill in many of the blanks. Secondly, the proposals themselves, including LAAs and MAAs, will bring political attention to public concerns where local government can demonstrate with concrete plans why devolution delivers better solutions to national challenges.

To realise this opportunity, local leaders need the ambition to make their local case on this national stage.