Posted by:29 September, 2011
The Conservatives’ autumn conference starts this weekend – and local government types should keep their ears cocked for the tone that ministers take towards localism.
Throughout the first year or so of the coalition, localism was seen to be in and of itself a ‘good thing’. Its enhancement a desirable policy objective.
Senior civil servants now speak of a new pragmatism that has taken hold of the government
Thus the government’s creed – at least as espoused by communities secretary Eric Pickles – was “localism, localism, localism”. Come up with a policy that could be seen as localist and the chances were it would get a fair hearing.
This is no longer the case. Senior civil servants – and not those in departments with a strong centralising tradition – now speak openly about a new pragmatism that has taken hold of the government over the summer.
The issues driving government policy now break down into three themes: economic growth; social cohesion; and public service reform.
The search for growth
The drivers for the first two are clear. The summer saw a deterioration in the UK’s growth prospects culminating in the IMF last week cutting its predictions for growth this year and next.
When the coalition took office, one of the justifications made for the scale of the cuts to public services was that the UK, at least in parts, had become too dependent on the public sector for employment. The prevalence of jobs in councils, health trusts and quangos was strangling private sector wealth – and job – creation. When George Osborne spoke about the “march of the makers” in his March budget speech, he was outlining a picture of the UK as an export-led economy
With no signs forthcoming of an export-led recovery, ministers are desperately searching for new sources of growth. One such source is construction and public sector construction in particular. This explains Nick Clegg’s recent push to get a series of infrastructure projects delivered on time and moves to make it easier for councils to borrow money to pay of housing debt so that they can get building again.
The impact of the riots
Meanwhile, August also saw the outbreak of rioting across England.
On the riots, ministers are said to be genuinely shocked by the violence that broke out in August. It was not just how widespread the disorder was, but its acquisitive nature. Rioting against perceived injustice at the hands of the police ministers can comprehend (if not genuinely empathise with). But the fact that rioters were “trying on the jeans first” is said to have made a deep impression on ministers.
Early intervention is being seen as one of the potential tools that could tackle a value system that ministers see as completely alien. It is noteworthy that when Labour MP Graham Allen first called for the creation of an early intervention foundation in July and for the prime minister to take ownership of the issue, Number 10 batted off media enquiries to the Department for Education. Five days after the riots, Mr Allen received a letter from David Cameron giving at least his apparent backing to the move.
There are two examples that demonstrate how this new pragmatism is taking precedence over the previous focus on localism. Firstly, Philip Hammond gave a speech this month in which he claimed that local enterprise partnerships (operating at the sub-regional spatial level) were simply too small to be handed transport powers and would need to cluster together into something closer to regions. Secondly, the creation of a specialist unit within the Department for Communities & Local Government to drive forward interventions in chaotic families is a marked change of direction from previous attempts to tackle the issue through piloting community budgets.
And amidst everything, the continued absence of Greg Clark’s report on individual departments’ progress on decentralisation suggests a lack of willingness to push localism across government.
Public service reform
This is not to say that localism is dead. The challenge for local government will be to demonstrate that localist policies can foster economic growth and tackle societal breakdown.
And it is the third theme – public service reform – that still holds out the greatest hope of seeing localist – if not ‘local governmentist’ – policies implemented. On health and education, versions of localism still look set to be enacted. The challenge for councils here will be to show that local government should not be by-passed in these reforms.
The government’s recent response to the communities and local government select committee’s report on localism made repeated reference to the Open Public Services white paper and its proposed role for councils as “the people’s champions for all public services in their area”. Such wording brings to mind the role outlined by Eric Pickles’ immediate predecessor John Denham who, at the end of the Labour administration, saw councils having the power to scrutinise all public services provided in their areas, if not a formal role in actually shaping them.
The lack of hard policy proposals in the Open Public Services white paper led to many seeing it as something of a dud. This is not necessarily the case. Look out for the publication of an implementation paper in November for signs of how the government might yet put flesh on what have so far been some pretty bare bones.
From Civic Regalia
LGC’s political editor Dan Drillsma-Milgrom blogs on all aspects of town hall life