Speech by Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP: A New Deal for Local Devolution?

Location: Church House, Westminster, London
Event summary: The New Local Government Network (NLGN) Annual Conference

It’s a pleasure to be here at NLGN.

As ever you’ve assembled a stellar cast.

I relish the opportunity to look ahead with you to the challenges of the next twelve months – and to launch the next practical steps on local devolution, with a big push on community contracts.

I’ll say more about this later.

But first you ask the question – will 2008 be the year for a ‘New Deal’ for Local Devolution?

I think it should be – I think it could be.

But it’s up to all us of now who believe in the power of local democracy to seize the most of the moment.

Think about how far we’ve come.

For so long people like me, like everyone in this room who believes in a bigger role for local democracy, were on the outside looking in.

But in recent years we’ve seen a huge change in attitudes.

2007 saw the first big practical steps towards a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to the town hall, and direct to the people.

The sheer pace of change was astonishing.

In January, the Local Government White Paper with its promise of a new framework was still a statement of intent.

By December, there was unstoppable momentum across the whole range of commitments it set out – with far more achieved than some people thought possible.

We had the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act passed into law.

We had a streamlined indicator set.

And we had the first 3-year funding settlement, removing ring-fencing and other controls on some £5 billion of funding.

The White Paper wasn’t the limit of what we achieved in 2007.

The sub-national review highlighted councils’ role in generating prosperity, fighting worklessness, and working across boundaries.

Discussions started in earnest on the first Multi Area Agreements – more than a dozen groups of councils, covering a third of all authorities, working together to deliver what people really need: homes, jobs, joined-up transport.

And at the same time local authorities continued to deliver the bread and butter.

Nearly four in five were rated good or excellent, for the first time none were rated zero-star, and there’s a huge wealth of talent in the sector.

Just a glance at the shortlist for the Local Government Chronicle’s 2008 awards reveals an astonishing range of achievements:

  • Fenland Borough Council – regenerating the waterfront in Wisbech to create at least 150 new jobs, 200 new homes, and a business centre
  • Barnsley – rethinking its place in a global economy, with a new stress on learning that has helped make it the fastest-improving education authority in the country
  • And Islington, achieving around £2m of savings by putting in an innovative new system to deal with road repairs that also helped provide a swifter, more responsive service.

If 2007 meant new discretion and new confidence for local authorities, it also saw significant steps on devolution to the doorstep – power direct to local people.

I think this opening-up of the way government works is vital. I’ve never believed that people should know their place, accept what they’re given.

There’s no surer way to improve a public service – whether it’s a hospital or a police force – than to give people a real say over what the priorities should be.

2007 showed councils in the vanguard.

Following Barry Quirk’s review, we saw a surge of interest in asset transfer, with 34 authorities already exploring the potential of handing over assets to be owned or managed by community groups.

Or take participatory budgeting. In just six months, 22 councils came forward to show how community kitties can work.

Already we can see neighbourhoods giving people a genuine voice in allocating local budgets and reaping the rewards in terms of greater cohesion, renewed enthusiasm for civic volunteering, and decisions that genuinely reflect people’s concerns.

All the progress of 2007 culminated with the Concordat, a landmark document setting out for the very first time how central and local government could work together in the interests of the people they serve.

The Concordat is an immensely powerful statement.

It consolidates the achievements of recent years so that we don’t slip back into the old ways.

It looks forward to an ever more mature relationship to come.

No more of Whitehall assuming it has all the answers.

No more of local government relying on central guidance as a crutch, always waiting to be told what to do, seeing the statutory minimum as the extent of its ambitions.

No more of the public’s views being overlooked or requested as a mere afterthought.

And as councils step forward, Whitehall will step back – with a further reduction in the burden of appraisal and approval regimes, the ring-fencing of funds and prescriptive guidance – helping us strike right balance of national and local roles, the right sharing of responsibility for meeting challenges.

So I’m confident about 2008.

Confident because over the last twelve months we’ve laid solid foundations, because I believe we understand what needs to happen next if we are to make a success of the new framework.

And my message for today is that it’s time to be ambitious.

We shouldn’t be afraid of debate about issue that raise real passions, like mayors. Personally I’m impressed by what local mayors are achieving in places like Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Lewisham – offering accountable, visible leadership, so people know who to turn to when they’ve got a problem. And if you look at London, Ken Livingstone is having a real impact. As ideas about Multi Area Agreements develop, I’m going to be interested to see how people’s views on having a single big player holding the ring develop, too.

Or take the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, worth £1.5bn over the next three years. Local authorities should be thinking creatively about how they might use it to help places dogged by long-term worklessness turn themselves around.

And I want to be ambitious about making the most of what we have in place in already.

Ambitious about what local government and its partners can achieve through Local Area Agreements.

Ambitious about what Multi-Area Agreements can deliver.

Ambitious about how we can put local people in the driving seat.

Get it right, we can alter forever the way that local and central government work together not just in principle, but in practice.

Get it right, and we could complete a change in attitudes so that people don’t feel bypassed or ignored – but empowered to make the changes they want to see in their community.

But it’s not going to fall into our laps. There’s some hard work in the months ahead.

Hard work for me, and for Whitehall.

For councils, and their partners:

And for community, voluntary and residents’ groups, and all their advocates, too.

First of all, there’s a challenge for me. The concordat is a wonderful symbol of a shift in attitudes in Whitehall.

But elegant as the concordat is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. Its worth is in how we use it. For me, it’s a tool for influencing colleagues all across Whitehall.

I want to help them understand how giving local government and local partners a bigger role can be the key to delivering big national priorities.

I want to make sure that whenever we’re confronting a new problem – whether it’s childhood obesity or community cohesion – we think local first.

I want to think about what mechanisms we can put in place to make sure that our first reaction isn’t new regulation, but to ask how we can learn from, and work with, town halls and their partners.

That task is a whole lot easier where local government is leading the way already.

So the second big challenge is for councils themselves – to keep building on the successes of recent years.

To use the Local Area Agreement to set stretching targets that make a real difference on the priorities people care about. I believe the dry run negotiations have helped everyone – including Government offices – understand how they can play their part.

There’s a challenge, too, to use the new duty to cooperate and strengthen your role as the people who hold the ring of local accountability – deepening your partnership with Primary Care Trusts, Police Authorities, and Education Authorities.

The Prime Minister himself has asked some of you in person to push the flexibility offered by the new framework to the limit.

This is the opportunity to show what local authorities can achieve not just as administrators, but as leaders who can make local authorities proud.

And as you exhaust the limits of the current framework, make a noise. Tell us what more you need. What three things central government could do differently to help you deliver what people want.

I promise I’ll take it away and see what we can do.

I think the third big challenge for 2008 is to keep up the momentum on devolution to the doorstep.

Look at participatory budgeting. Today, 22 areas are piloting community kitties. I’ve said that I want every local authority to offer one, and will soon be consulting on a strategy about how we get there – sooner rather than later.

Or take asset transfer. 2008 will be the year many places move from exploration to exploitation of their underused assets, with community groups taking over responsibility for iconic buildings.

And today I’m pleased to launch the next stage on empowerment with a new push on community contracts.

Contracts are about councils, police, health authorities and local people coming together to agree what each will do to make the neighbourhood better.

They are based on the idea of something for something.

The council and the community work together to tailor local services to local concerns – for example, improving parks, clearing graffiti, or tackling drug dealers.

In turn, local people pledge to do their bit – taking care of communal gardens, running after-school clubs, or even perhaps taking over the running of the local community centre.

Several places – from Milton Keynes, to Bolton, to Walsall – have already experimented and are showing how contracts can transform neighbourhoods – helping cut anti-social behaviour, or making streets cleaner and greener.

For example, in Peel Hall, in Manchester, 60 residents are receiving free hanging baskets for the front of their houses in return for agreeing to water them and for their neighbours when they are away.

Today, I want to encourage many more places to think about how contracts could work for them.

I’m pleased today to launch guidance for Local Authorities, produced by the Young Foundation, that draws on the experience so far. The Young Foundation has worked very hard to produce this and it is full of really good practical information and some excellent examples of what already works – so thanks to them.

And together with Shared Intelligence, we’re supporting 12 further pilot areas to explore charters further over the next three months.

It’s an opportunity to find out what different solutions can work in different places – North and South, urban and rural, large and small.

I also want to use the chance to debate issues such as accountability and giving people a greater role and say in the delivery of services.

Those councils who really believe in delivering for the people they serve should have the confidence to commit to some form of action if services don’t meet the standards set out in the ‘community contract’. In return they can asking local people to take a greater role in driving up services.

In most cases the response could be a public meeting to investigate why service standards have not been delivered, a right of written response, or a commitment from a council to rectify a problem.

In the minority of cases where there is serious and persistent failure, I think we could even explore whether, as is the case already in some instances, compensation of some sort might be appropriate.

After all, people rightly expect a good standard of service and redress when things go wrong. When trains are delayed they know they are entitled to refunds or compensation. Improving transparency for local services in a similar way could improve standards and increase confidence in local democracy. But I want a full debate with you about these issues first.

And finally, accountability will be a theme as I work with colleagues across Government to make sure public services are truly answerable to the people they serve.

We will be exploring ways to make sure schools, hospitals and police services listen and respond to local people and their democratically elected representatives.

Let me be clear that there’s a lot of further work to do here, but I believe we should be optimistic about what will be possible in 2008.

In conclusion, I believe this is going to be an exciting year and a real turning point. It promises a good deal of hard work: but also the potential to achieve a new deal on local devolution:

Where the town hall gets ever better at delivering high quality services, meeting local challenges and national priorities, building a legacy to be proud of;

Where central government gives it the space to do so, treating it as a true partner;

And where both get better at listening to the people they serve, giving them the opportunity and the confidence to decide their own future.

It’s a great opportunity. I look forward to working with you all to make the most of it.