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Local government’s Magna Carta’ needs to bring communities with it

Readers au fait with Coalition localism rhetoric will know that we are the most centralised country in Europe - though many of us may fear that not enough is being done about it. As the implementation of many of the best publicised elements of the Localism Act starts to rumble along, less attention is being paid to the Local Government Finance Bill, rushed through the House of Commons amid anxieties from councils that the system is ‘fiendishly complex’ and in places increases, rather than relaxes, central control. LGiU have recently done some research into this.

Some smaller aspects of the language and narrative are also not hugely encouraging. The fact that Eric Pickles decided to activate the general power of competence by making a fuss over councils’ rights to hold prayers before meetings - important perhaps but hardly something that will help councils improve local people’s lives – and the fact that despite its introduction, the London Borough of Enfield still had to ask Pickles’s permission to introduce fixed penalty notices for spitting in the street are two small but disquieting indications of the level at which localism is being implemented. Meanwhile, though councils are fighting a defensive battle on many fronts, there is a keen appetite from councillors for real local power – not least for the powers needed to be able to take on a greater role in stimulating economic recovery.

Against this backdrop, the LGA and the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee have teamed up to spark a debate on the need for a new, formal constitutional settlement to set out the relationship between central and local government and guarantee councils’ legal and financial independence and autonomy to serve their citizens. A draft code has been produced and the Committee’s Chair, Graham Allen MP, is encouraging council groups and other organisations to hold discussions on the idea over the next few months and suggest changes to the draft and how it could work in practice.

There is much for councils to applaud in the document, including the recognition of councils as equal partners with central government, the establishment of an irrevocable legal status for councils (whose current existence and range of functions is entirely in the hands of central government) and the freedom to raise and spend revenue in any legal ways open to individuals or companies, subject to local people’s consent. The most immediate concern is how to take the debate forward at a high level.

The consultation on the document closes on October 5th. Eventually, the new settlement could potentially be taken forward through the Private Member’s Bill system; though the odds would be stacked against it, phrased right and with cross-party backbench and media support it would be difficult for the Government to ignore.

Whatever the eventual mechanism, though, a way forward will be found if public pressure is sufficient. The big question is: are the public bothered? The issue is subtler and broader than the usual fodder of organisations like 38 Degrees, which now orchestrate many of the UK’s most visible mass mobilisations of people behind causes. Denying power to the government to cut or privatise is one thing, which can be framed simplistically and emotively. Asking for more power for councils, who have been set up as the agents of many local cuts, is quite another. The nationalisation of power has also led to a nationalisation of dissent.

Discussion has not yet focused on how this can happen, with a fairly sector-specific and conventional approach to spreading the word thus far (including the involvement of the LGA, an insert in the Municipal Journal, and indeed this blog post). It further underlines the divide between local and central government that close working between a Parliamentary committee and the LGA is in itself breaking some new ground. But to move the issue forward, normal local people outside the circle of local government geekery will need to be added to the debate, in creative ways and with a message that is immediately relevant across a range of concerns.
 
Perhaps to make this happen, we will need to put our money where our mouths are. A major fact that this project is seeking to change is that while central government is able to look at revenue raising as well as making savings, these options are largely unavailable at the local level. The quality of the local political process suffers hugely as a result – most obviously in public dissatisfaction at council tax rises, constantly simmering in many areas and hugely aggravated by the lack of public awareness that council tax is not the source of the major part of most councils’ funding. At the same time, spending cuts are necessitating increasingly tough choices about priorities – but these choices are absent from all but the most innovative council consultation around cuts.

An approach that may have the potential to engage residents in getting to grips with these trade-offs – and with the government constraints that make the trade-offs so much worse – is participatory budgeting. In many cases, as reported by the Participatory Budgeting Unit, its use in the UK has been limited to the allocation of tokenistic sums of money for additional local projects. With such discretionary funds in short supply, it may seem that this is an experiment for the good times. But more comprehensive neighbourhood-based pooled budgets may be of more use now than ever, politically as well as practically. With the trade-offs between spending priorities becoming more difficult, it could be the ideal opportunity to find out how residents, local businesspeople and other stakeholders would balance a budget if a sensible range of revenue raising and spending powers were available to them – and engage a broader range of people in asking why, ludicrously, the central government straitjacket prevents this from happening in reality.  

As ever, this is easier said than done. But despite the persistent gap between rhetoric and reality on localism, conditions for a shift of power to councils are still possibly better than they have been in quite a while. Councils and civil society organisations should jump on board - and do what they can to take the public with them.

Majeed Neky is an LGiU associate contributing to policy briefings for members and blogs at http://localismclub.wordpress.com

Read LGiU member briefings on Localism.

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