After DCLG – Localism in Whitehall?
Adrian Harvey, Head of Research, NLGN, 18 June, 2012

This week, the government is planning to unveil its plans for civil service reform. Early press suggests a relatively cautious approach – reducing the number of grades and reducing the number of security passes needed to move around Whitehall. Ministers should consider something more radical. There has been much talk about simply scrapping a number of departments wholesale; so how about Communities and Local Government? Do we still need CLG in a localist world, and might we get better policy and bigger savings if we got rid of it?

NLGN isn’t coming down on one side or the other. In fact, we consider abolishing the department outright is a lot harder than it might initially appear. But we do think this is a debate worth having and we’re keen to hear your opinions.

Here’s how it might work…

Currently, the department has responsibilities in six areas: Regeneration and economic growth; Communities and neighbourhoods; Fire and resilience; Housing; Planning, building and the environment; and Local government. Almost all of these functions could (indeed should) be the responsibility of local authorities themselves, with residual central policy oversight moved to elsewhere on Whitehall.

Regeneration and economic growth could be transferred directly to local government, with the residual central functions going to BIS: given the important role that councils are playing to promote national economic growth, such a move could lead to a more coherent industrial policy overall; it would also require the Department to stop seeing the world as ‘flat’, and recognise more the importance of place to the economy.

Responsibilities for communities and neighbourhoods could similarly be transferred directly to councils; if central government needed to maintain a policy locus, then the Cabinet Office, particularly the Cities Unit and the Office for Civil Society, could provide for that. Fire and resilience could be transferred directly to FRSs and local government, with residual central functions, including funding, channelled through the Home Office as part of their broader civil contingencies remit.

As regards local government, government should quite simply cut out the middle man. LG DEL could be administered directly from HM Treasury in a bilateral relationship with each authority. Everything else rightly belongs to local authorities with a general power of competence.

More problematic are the housing and planning functions: both policy areas could be much more devolved to local authorities, but there would remain some policy, regulatory and implementation functions that would need to sit at the centre. These functions could be reassigned to other departments – for example, shifting planning policy, and the sponsorship of the Planning Inspectorate to either BIS or Defra, but both would be hugely problematic. It is not clear where else on Whitehall housing could rationally sit.

We therefore propose a new dedicated Department for Housing and Planning, comprising the functions currently undertaken by the DCLG Neighbourhoods Group, covering planning, building regulations, housing growth, and homelessness. This slimmed down department would sponsor a number of DCLG’s arms-length bodies to conduct much of the delivery support and regulation in these sectors, including the Homes and Communities Agency and the Planning Inspectorate, as well as the Independent Housing Ombudsman and the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.

Of DCLG’s remaining arm’s length bodies, sponsorship of the Local Government Ombudsman and Commission for Local Administration could be transferred to the Cabinet Office, as part of their good governance remit. The Fire Service College and Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre could both happily be floated off (or go to Crown Estates or some such), while the Architect’s Registration Board could be abolished (making architects, along with other professional groups, self-regulating through their own Institute) or be transferred to DCMS (which has the architecture policy remit).

Have your say:

Should the Department for Communities and Local Government be replaced with the Department for Housing and Planning, in line with NLGN’s proposals?