What Future is There for Localism?
All three main political parties have been committed to some form or another of 'Localism'. The Labour Government developed Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs), the New Deal for Communities Programme (NDC) for regeneration areas (New Deals for Communities Final Assessment, 2012) and the Local Government Act of 2000. The Coalition Government have revised the implementation of the Planning Act of 2008 and passed two further Acts of Parliament: the Localism Act of 2011 and the Public Bodies Act of 2011.
Most of our interviewees were in favour of the idea of Localism as a principle; that is, the idea of devolving appropriate powers to an appropriate level or what the European Union calls 'subsidiarity'. However, most were unhappy with actual government practice. Under Labour they felt they were presented with far too many top-down targets, which inhibited local solutions. There were even wider issues with the Coalition Government's policy of Localism; in particular, the ambiguity and uncertainty, which we observed in earlier chapters, surrounding
what powers are to be devolved and to whom, and the absence of adequate funding for services. This has lead to frustration on the part of Local Authority leaders, as evinced by the reactions of the LGA. They have been calling for Localism to be a lever for growth and are demanding far greater freedoms in order to achieve this. Cockell (2013b) echoes the demands of our own interviewees when he asks for local control over how business rates are spent and less interference by Central Government in local planning matters.
Cockell also attacked the 2013 budget on behalf of the LGA for 'the widening rift between Conservative-run local authorities and ministers in central government' (Helm, 2013a), not just because of the continuing huge budget cuts complained about by our own interviewees but also because of the failure by Central Government to properly plan such cuts, with the result that local decisions had to be hurried and so were ill thought out, resulting in sudden cuts to services on the ground. He is quoted as saying: 'Fire-sale decisions are bad decisions but if you do not have the ability to plan, you simply take the big items you can cut from' (Helm, 2013a). Further anger was generated when it appeared that London was being spared the level of additional cuts in expenditure to be suffered elsewhere (Helm, 2013b). So, while the Coalition Government in 2013 appears at last to be moving towards developing an economic growth strategy, local government continues to complain that under a confused Localism, Central Government's failure to adequately fund or plan makes it very difficult or impossible to implement it (Local Government Association, 2013).
This shows also in the reactions of our interviewees from the voluntary sector. There was a lot of enthusiasm for community engagement and volunteering but real uncertainty as to the relevance of The Big Society. It is one thing to encourage local people to engage in community action in a variety of ways, but action needs to be organised to be effective, and funding cuts were undermining many of the voluntary organisations that had been providing a framework for individual action. It is not without significance that three of the organisations we had followed during this research were, by the end of the period, on the point of closure because of inadequate funding. Some of the business leaders also expressed concern about the lack of clarity of government policy and the absence of national or regional economic strategies.
Ironically, were local government structures to be reformed, there are considerable opportunities for financial savings without impacting on services. There had been a gradual conversion of county councils into Unitary Authorities until the present Prime Minister put a stop to this process. Yet, getting rid of the district level could produce considerable savings in administration costs. At the same time, a Total Place approach, begun by Labour and continued as an experiment under the Coalition in some Local Authority areas such as Essex, could lead to further substantial savings. Other local authorities are losing their Chief Executives and not replacing them. The failure to address local government reform and so ameliorate the funding crisis does suggest that the cuts in Local Authority funding and services may be being driven at least as much by ideological
commitments to New Public Management theory (Hood, 1991) as by the need to
reduce the national deficit.
As we argued in Chapter 6, Localism can only succeed once there is a clear distribution of power and responsibilities between the various levels of government and governance. Arbitrary policy interventions by Central Government on specific issues undermine certainty and seriously damage both credibility and morale. In the same way, Localism can only be effective if there is significant local financial and economic control. This is most likely to occur if localities are allowed serious revenue raising powers. Even then, there are limitations to what Localism can do. It can only plan structural projects for the local or, at best, subregional level. Realistically, larger structural projects must be done by Central Government, though the idea of Localism would imply proper consultation with local bodies, unlike the way in which the Coalition has handled the High Speed 2 railway (H2S) project. National infrastructure projects are the responsibility of national governments, but mechanisms need to be found to integrate national and local policies to the satisfaction of all parties. Different localities are likely to make different decisions from each other on matters as planning, transport, economic growth etc. For example, locally driven economic development can only satisfactorily deal with local or at best sub-regional economies and so requires regional or national economic strategies within which to operate. It will also inevitably lead to increasing relativities between local economies and relative inequality between geographical regions.
Given that Localism has been adopted as an idea by all main political parties operating in England, it is an experiment that needs to be made to work. Yet, as we argued in Chapter 6, there are serious concerns about perceived contradictions within the present government, its consistency of approach and implementation and its ability to achieve consistent levels of economic development and security of finance to support the new arrangements. Of course, the very nature of Localism suggests that bottom-up initiatives will lead to local variations in policy and practice. However, this decentralisation as yet appears to lack any consistent framework within which it is to be applied.