The coalition’s climbdown on shadow mayors

This article was first published by TotalPolitics.

It’s fair to say that the parliamentary passage of the Localism Bill, which had its second reading in the Lords yesterday, has not generated great deal of excitement in the press or amongst the public at large. The most eye-catching issue to emerge yesterday was the government’s climbdown on plans to transform council leaders into “shadow mayors” ahead of referendums on elected mayors. This plan suffered from the triple whammy of seeming undemocratic, having little clear benefit and being of slight interest to anyone outside a small circle of policy wonks and local government geeks. One suspects its passing will be unlamented.

The lack of serious media attention the Bill has garnered is regrettable, however, because, as the legislative embodiment of the government’s Big Society agenda, the Bill is actually central to one of the key political debates of the moment and contains some fairly striking provisions which could (and I stress could) make a huge difference both to how local authorities operate and to the extent to which citizens can take control of services in their local areas.

The ‘people power’ elements of the Bill include a new community “right to challenge” the council over the provision of local services, and a new right to bid to buy local assets such as libraries, pubs and shops.  These clauses are important because, while there is lively political debate about the rhetoric of the Big Society, there is also a growing consensus that, whatever label you attach to it, a greater engagement of citizens and communities in the process of governance will become more essential thanks to a combination of tight finances and long term pressures on public services.

The right to challenge and the right to bid represent a serious attempt to give communities the powers they need to get more involved in service delivery, as such they merit serious consideration.

There are of course already many successful examples of this kind of community challenge and involvement, but we do need to ask what will motivate more people to want to take over services or assets rather than have the council deliver them. The Bill has a lot to say about the ‘supply’ side: what powers communities will have but nothing to say about ‘demand’: how will the desire to take over services be stimulated.  Similarly when community groups do get involved how we will ensure that they are properly supported and that they are accountable in respect of service standards and use of public money?  The government will want to achieve this without reintroducing what it sees as the ‘dead hand’ of the Big State, but the role of local government and of elected local councillors is likely to be crucial.

And herein lies the challenge and the opportunity. The Bill is silent on many details of how this role will play out. Rather than waiting for central government guidance, councils must seize the initiative to work with local people to shape the detail of these policies at a local level. No one can claim this will be easy, especially at a time of budget cuts, but for true localists the opportunity to drive this agenda from the bottom up should be welcomed.