Reading the Humpty Dumpty concordat
17 December, 2007

Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director
Guardian Unlimited

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean,” said Humpty Dumpty, and so it may be with the concordat signed by the chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Simon Milton, and the secretary of state, Hazel Blears, this week.

With those signatures local government became the first part of the state to benefit from the promises made in the constitutional reform white paper Governance of Britain. The concordat describes a new partnership between central and local government; the tone suggests that in future this will be a partnership of equals.

Both branches of government are said to derive legitimacy equally from parliament and the voter; both share common goals across a range of policies. Local government is to have a “growing share of the business of government”.

In the best New Labour tradition, each partner in the concordat gets rights and responsibilities. Central government has the right to set national policy and the responsibility to “remove obstacles that prevent councils pursuing their role”. Councils have the right to run public services in their area and the responsibility to be accountable and responsive.

Hazel Blears cautiously described the text as enshrining “a more mature relationship”. Simon Milton claimed it was “significant and ground breaking”. Such comments are the clue to the nature of the concordat.

The text has no legislative force. Instead the words in the concordat, a bit like Humpty’s, may come to mean just what the loudest voice says they mean. The concordat is the terrain on to which the devolution debate has now moved, and the players on that stage are adopting new tactics.

Hazel Blears talks only of “a more mature relationship” but Simon Milton squeezes every word for maximum meaning. So, in his terms, the reference to finance and transparency is a central government commitment to reopen the finance debate; the reference to the European Charter on Local Self-Government is a quasi-constitutional promise of subsidiarity.

The more the concordat is seen as a set of concrete promises, the greater the price Whitehall will pay if it fails to deliver on devolution.

If Whitehall’s words mean anything, then 2008 should see a change in the financing of local government. A commission to assess full funding of new duties on councils and new sources of funding are obvious first steps in reform.

The new local area agreements may provide the first test of Whitehall’s willingness to reform itself; the deals will be agreed by June 2008. If flexibility means anything then councils should be allowed to overrule national targets for other public bodies, such as the police or Jobcentre Plus, whenever they obstruct local plans.

The only limit on local choice would be the public service agreements that both the centre and localities pledge to deliver.

So, will 2008 be the year of devolution? Can words alone ever say enough? During 2008 we will learn whether Humpty is right and the concordat means what we say it means or whether it means much less.