Went to the launch this morning by John Denham of the government’s ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’ consultation. These are my first thoughts on hearing him and skimming the document.
The starting point of this consultation is the right one: the recognition that councillors and councils should lead communities, and shape all the local public services, because they have a “unique democratic mandate”.
The consultation is a very practical one. Gone is the airy language of ‘empowerment’. Instead John Denham identifies priority areas where he sees scope to increase the role and powers of councils.
John Denham clearly recognises that local action will have the greatest impact to tackle climate change. We are pleased to see that he wants to build on the LGiUs carbon trading project which is highlighted in the consultation. Only councils have the understanding of local patterns of carbon emissions as they relate to economic and social progress. The proposals reflect the ideas we have shared in recent weeks with the government, and the work we are continuing with the launch of our Carbon Trading Public Sector programme.
Proposals to enhance local democracy in health services are good to see. For too long this massive part of the public sector has been run from Whitehall. The LGiU will respond calling for local primary care trusts to be run by local councillors, who should make up a majority of the membership of the Trust Boards. This simple step will put people who have a mandate into a position where they can exert much more influence in health, and connect health to other key local services, particularly social care.
Proposals to extend powers, and the resources, for councils to scrutinise a much wider range of local services, including utilities, will only be worthwhile if they have real teeth.
Finally, it is good to see that the government is taking up our proposals to put local government’s role and powers in relation to central government on a statutory footing, including the LGiU’s suggestion for a joint parliamentary committee.
The problem with this consultation is that John Denham is approaching localism from the beginning at the end of the government’s term. I asked the Secretary of State today how any of these proposals will see the light of day in the short time before the next election. John Denham’s response is that we, the supporters of stronger local democracy, have to help him persuade his colleagues across government that there is an urgent need and a real demand to localise now. We will be taking up this invitation to redouble our work to take our message to all parts of Whitehall.
In the meantime I will be urging John Denham not to wait until the consultation ends ‘in the Winter’ to get on with implementing those ideas that don’t require legislation and where a consensus exists already between local and central government.