Why the silence on the Localism Bill?

This article first appeared on the Total Politics blog.

‘Not with a bang but a whimper’. Last month, the Localism Bill gained Royal Assent accompanied by almost blanket press and public indifference.

This seems strange for an act that is at the heart of the government’s legislative programme and which is in many ways the most concrete instance of their wider big society agenda. An act that Eric Pickles described as “the beginning of an historic shift of power from Whitehall to every community to take back control of their lives” and which includes potentially radical measures such as the power of general competence for local authorities, community rights to challenge to take over the running of public services and to bid for assets of community value and new neighbourhood planing powers.

I’ve written before about the strange lack of public interest in the bill. Within local government, there’s a great deal of interest of course, but also anxiety about the implementation of the act and a growing concern that it will not make as much difference in practice as the government intends. I’d argue that the act does have transformative potential, but that the lack of public interest is the most significant barrier to its success.

Why the scepticism about how much difference the act will make? Take the community right to challenge for example: a community group can express an interest in taking over a service from the local authority, The council either accepts or rejects this expression of interest according to criteria set out in regulations. Either way the councils must publish reasons for its decision. If the expression is accepted a procurement process is triggered which must be open to all and run according to the normal rules, including the Public Contracts Regulations and EU procurement law if applicable. Many in local government conclude that the effect of this will be that it is very difficult for them to award contracts to community groups, particularly where they end up competing with better resourced, more experienced private sector providers.

Or take the community right to bid: community groups can nominate assets of community value, the council accepts or rejects the nomination, again according to fairly clear criteria and publishing its reasons. When that asset changes hands the community has a window of time in which to put together a bid, but does not have any preferred bidder status, the owner can eventually sell the asset to whomsoever they wish. Again, many conclude that the right will therefore make little difference in practice.

This may be too pessimistic. In many cases the council does have discretion over how to run the procurement process, especially where the services have a value of less than £156,000, equally the council itself will often be the owner of the asset to be disposed of and can choose to sell it to the community group.

But even if the doubtful are right. Even if the voluntary groups, parish councils and employee mutuals do not get to take over services or assets, this does not mean that nothing has happened.

Crucially, the local authority no longer gets to control the terms of debate. They have to respond to challenges about the future of particular assets or services that they may not have been intending to even think about. This conversation is driven by the community not by council policy. A new dialogue is opened up and a new form of accountability established.

This may prove to be the Localism Act’s most transformative legacy. But this will only work if the demand is there, if people and communities actively seek to exercise the new powers the act grants them. That’s why the lack of media focus on the act is so concerning. And it’s why local authorities will have to step up. They have a crucial role to play in engaging communities in this process. The best local authorities will therefore treat the new act, not as something to be complied with, but as an opportunity to re-imagine the future of local services in partnership with local people.