“The Localism Bill is seen by some commentators to mark, if not the end, than at least the beginning of the end of central government’s control of local government. The introduction of a ‘general power of competence’, which means that councils can do anything lawful, providing the Secretary of State hasn’t said they can’t, has been greeted with muted enthusiasm. Others are not convinced and point out the new powers which central government is taking for itself, which undermine localism. These include the right to determine whether a council tax increase is excessive and should therefore be the subject of a local referendum. This blend of giving with one hand and undermining with the other, together with the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles’ relentless barrage of public criticism of local authorities, has created a very unhelpful relationship between central and local government. Not only has the criticism often been ill-informed or unfounded, there is strong suspicion in local government that it is not really about salaries or bin collection but a calculated move to put local government in the wrong, so they can take the brunt of public anger as the cuts really start to bite.
All of which poses the questions ‘What is localism?’ and ‘What could localism achieve?’. The answer to the first is that it means whatever you want it to mean. It could mean devolving to local government the powers to raise the revenues which support the provision of services which they provide or commission for local communities. It could also mean devolving to local people the powers to take over the running of council services and assets and giving them a much more direct say, in the future shape of the places where they live. So, localism can be about power, equity, money, sustainability, democracy, civic engagement and co-production of better outcomes for people – many of the really important things in life.
Localism could achieve a great deal but first we need to overcome some huge barriers. England is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world, in marked contrast to our European neighbours. Central control of resources and power is firmly embedded in the machinery of national government and trumps whatever localising tendencies national politicians might have. This makes it harder for local councils to pool their resources with other big service providers such as, health, Jobcentre Plus and the police, to focus on delivering creative, co-ordinated, differentiated responses to local need. Central control also creates waste because different agencies are trying to tackle the same difficult issues in diverse ways and can duplicate and undermine each others’ efforts. Central government does occasionally allow some limited local joint ventures but progress is painfully slow and the waste of opportunity and resources goes on and on.
Local councils’ response to the riots shows how an effective local infrastructure can respond to crises and mobilise effort. It could also be argued that the riots were evidence of a failure of politics, both locally and nationally, which has left so many people with so little to lose. Central government cannot revitalise local economies, raise aspirations or encourage engagement from Whitehall. That is like trying to knit while wearing boxing gloves. Local government has developed skills in joining up at a local level those policies which central government has failed to join up at a national level. It has also demonstrated again and again just how efficient and effective it can be. Perhaps the time is right for it to pick up the general power of competence and run with it, and for central government to cheer them on, not trip them up - for the benefit of the people they all serve."