Following his appointment as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles spoke to the staff at his new department about his three priorities: “Localism, localism and localism”. He described this as “the principle, the mantra that defines everything we do,” adding: “Localism isn’t just about giving power back to local government. We’re not talking about a tug of war between local and central government. It’s important that we push power downwards and outwards to the lowest level. Out to the folks themselves.”
It is clear that this localist approach is very much in tune with the government’s broader narrative of the Big Society: reinvigorating civic society in our streets, estates and neighbourhoods through devolving more power. Although this concept failed to ignite during the election campaign, there is no doubting the government’s conviction. The Coalition Agreement contains commitments to promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups, to create more elected mayors, to provide oversight of the police by a directly elected individual, and to give local communities the chance to set up new schools.
The Localism Bill, soon to be published, is said to be proposing 46 separate reforms. According to Andrew Stunell MP, Pickles’ s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Secretary of State, it will form the foundations of the Big Society and fulfil “the wish list of every localist in the past 25 years”.
So, are we all localists now? Is there reality behind the rhetoric this time (remembering the double devolution, freedoms and flexibilities promises of old)? While the limits of centralism have been acknowledged by politicians across the spectrum, centripetal forces are still strong. Redefining central-local relations cannot be done by the Department of Communities and Local Government alone, and this government, while tentatively pursuing electoral reform, still appears to be averse to tackling the essential reform of Whitehall and the way the governance of the UK works.
Through to the 19th century, government was focused on the defence of the realm, the promotion of trade and the extension of imperial power. Interest in domestic affairs was confined to keeping the peace, collecting taxes and excise duties, the purchasing of supplies, the regulation of land ownership and, by the late 18th and early 19th century, the facilitation of infrastructure projects – the canals and railways. The Home Office was precisely that, dealing with all matters to do with the home country. Locally, the law was administered by magistrates, sheriffs and judges; parishes and charities provided what services there were.
The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 formed the basis of modern local government in the boroughs of England and Wales. Employing local resources, these new councils began to tackle the enormous challenges of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. They had local autonomy within the law and the power to levy a rate, issue bonds and charge for services. The role of central government was seen as creating appropriate local institutions to deal with ‘domestic’ matters locally, not to run or commission services itself. The exception was the police, where the Home Secretary established the tripartite arrangement we see to this day. This produced a great variation in provision from area to area well into the 20th century. In the most fortunate cities and county boroughs, citizens could expect municipal hospitals, water, gas, electricity, public transport, schools and housing, with some going further – Birmingham established a municipal bank and Hull a telephone system. Outside the boroughs, with their integrated approach to public services, provision was more limited, with responsibilities fragmented and citizens comparatively poorly served. In 1948, the formation of the NHS and the nationalisation of the utilities led to many former local government services being taken over by central government. Technically, there were good cases for nationalisation, but the driving principle was equity: that every citizen of the UK should have the same entitlements and access to basic services, wherever they live and whatever their income.
This principle is still at the heart of the localism/centralism debate. What are the basic services and entitlements that should be the same everywhere? And what can be determined locally? What is the right balance between national consistency and local autonomy? While government should determine the rules on entitlement to benefits, for example, must it also decide the frequency of refuse collections, as Eric Pickles has recently announced?
New Labour’s response
During the early years of the Blair government, some of the cruder dictates of central government were relaxed. Compulsory competitive tendering was ditched and councils were encouraged to develop more sophisticated service commissioning and partnerships. However, the local state had become fragmented. The health sector, other central government agencies and the local council were often all dealing with the same person. Performance regimes were top-down and funding ring-fenced, reinforcing the silos. Innovation was stifled and local public services were built around institutions rather than clients and citizens.
New Labour’s response to the fragmentation of responsibility for local services was not to restore powers to local authorities, but to encourage joint working through Local Strategic Partnerships and Local Area Agreements, backed up by an increasingly sophisticated inspection regime. This response was deemed inadequate by politicians and managers at the local level and by some civil servants. Partnership meant little if money and performance management were still siloed. A much more radical approach was needed to deal with the ‘wicked’ issues, to change public attitudes and behaviours, and to produce better outcomes for citizens and communities.
Total Place pilots were launched in March 2009 as a new approach to local services that could lead to better outcomes at less cost. They aimed to remove overlap and duplication and, through tackling issues from the citizen and client perspective, deliver a step change in efficiency of provision at the local level. These pilots generated great enthusiasm from politicians and from managers of local agencies.
At the time of writing, the government’s attitude to Total Place is at best ambiguous. The Budget contained no reference to it. As yet there has been no response to the Local Government Association’s proposals for place-based budgeting. While Pickles supports the approach, subject to rebranding, Teresa May (Home Office) and Michael Gove (education) are pursuing Coalition Agreement proposals which will lead to greater fragmentation of responsibilities at the local level, including directly elected oversight of the police and the further fragmentation of schooling. The substitution of the Coalition Agreement proposal for directly elected representatives on PCT boards by new health responsibilities for local authorities is to be welcomed, but the new ‘joining up’ responsibilities contained in the July NHS White Paper acknowledge the further fragmentation resulting from GP commissioning.
Total Place is the best attempt yet to recapture the integrated local services of the old county boroughs in a modern context of personalisation, choice and a mixed economy of service providers. It would be a pity if this were to be jeopardised by a return to the 19th century-style patchwork of separately elected local bodies, which the county boroughs replaced.
The financial horizon is bleak. If the government is to deliver on its deficit reduction programme and minimise the detrimental impact of public expenditure cuts on outcomes, it will be reliant on local leadership operating in a joined-up way across local authorities and other public agencies, in conjunction with citizens. The dangers are immense and reinforce the arguments for taking the Total Place approach – giving the locality its (albeit reduced) total budget for services and letting it determine its own priorities and strategy. Why not a budget for Birmingham, a proposition that Joseph Chamberlain would have been familiar with and certainly welcomed?