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David Miliband's latest plan involves devolving powers to councils and neighbourhoods. ...
David Miliband's latest plan involves devolving powers to councils and neighbourhoods.

But will this mean councils being attacked on two fronts, asks Mark Smulian

Press something from both above and below for long enough and it will lose its shape, strength and usefulness.

Is that the fate that awaits councils under the 'double devolution' plan communities and local government minister David Miliband has pushed in a series of speeches as his big idea for reviving public involvement with local democracy?

Mr Miliband's proposal is simple enough. Central government would devolve powers to councils, and reduce the inspection and targets regime, and councils would devolve powers to neighbourhoods. Residents would find it easier to engage with a neighbourhood than a conventional council and so participation would increase, the theory goes.

Few object to the principle involved, though there are concerns about whether people would really wish to participate. The main suspicions concern the government's intentions and whether the process might end up by increasing centralisation.

Just as the Conservative Party's recent enthusiasm for decentralisation has raised eyebrows among those who remember Tory administrations, so there is wariness about the devolutionary zeal of a Labour government that has drawn substantial powers to the centre.

Mr Miliband has said there would still be national standards, and has talked of neighbourhoods gaining powers to trigger inquiries on changes of service contractors, and use of public satisfaction surveys as 'a key element of regulation'.

Would councils find neighbourhoods trying to hold them accountable for the delivery of central government targets and standards?

Indeed, if a neighbourhood wanted to demonstrate that a service was failing, is there any objective yardstick available at present except national standards?

Mr Miliband told the New Local Government Network in January: 'Citizens will always expect some national standards, and central government will always have some priorities. That is why it is foolish in my view to call for the abolition of all national mechanisms for monitoring and managing performance.

'But there needs to be a new balance: more bottom-up accountability, more horizontal accountability across public services through local strategic partnerships and less top-down accountability.'

So, is government serious about devolution to councils, and will it resist the temptation to champion neighbourhoods against councils?

NLGN's head of policy Dick Sorabji says: 'I can imagine a conflict between the sort of CPA we have now and neighbourhood structures, which could create a gap you cannot bridge. CPA says 'do this', and even the best council would not have the time left to do much else.'

Mr Sorabji thinks there is 'huge logic' in double devolution so long as targets can be tailored to local circumstances. 'Do that well and it will give a better way of delivering national goals,' he says.

His preferredmodel would see 'the neighbourhood able to deliver enough pressure for something to happen, but not so much that the system collapses'.

Neighbourhoods could trigger a scrutiny or inspection of refuse collection, but not insist that the council broke this service up into uneconomic micro-contracts.

'Triggering a scrutiny or inspection would make people sit up and take notice because it would mean someone was going to come in and start asking them searching questions,' he explains.

'Neighbourhoods have got to have the power to press a button, but not to blow the whole thing to bits.'

Clarity over the nature and rigidity of national targets would be essential to the success of double devolution, Mr Sorabji argues. He gives the example of a national target for cycleways, applied to a village where only a few people cycle on well-maintained pavements and harm no one. Would the village have to provide superfluous cycleways just to meet the target?

'The problem with ideas from Whitehall is that people would think the only demands they could make on the council were those that related to national targets,' he says.

'It would be better to create a way for neighbourhoods to relate national priorities to local circumstances, as no government can know what everybody wants.'

There is scepticism elsewhere. Nicholas Boles, director of the Policy Exchange think-tank and a former Tory member at Westminster City Council, says: 'This government has spent eight years reducing the powers and responsibilities of local government and it is implausible they would change that system.'

Mr Boles argues that devolution would be useless unless accompanied by the financial powers needed to back up opinions with money. 'If there is no financial independence it is all pie in the sky,' he says.

Though he supports the concept of double devolution, Mr Boles is sceptical about Mr Miliband's apparent view that people would wish to get involved in monitoring services.

'If you have been a councillor, you know that every consultative group can be captured by well-intentioned busybodies who do not represent anyone.'

His preferred solution is that ward councillors should gain control of a small budget to spend on local projects. 'They will have been elected by more people than ever attend a neighbourhood meeting,' he

points out.

Chris Game, senior lecturer at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government Studies, admits: 'I have heard Mr Miliband speak, and neither I nor anyone else I know has any idea what he is going on about.'

Mr Game says he expects councils would have a few powers devolved to them, but would then be expected to give a lot more powers to neighbourhoods.

If so he fears there would be 'a centralising threat' as relationships developed between neighbourhoods and central government that bypassed councils.

The danger is obvious. If a council declined to do something a neighbourhood wanted done, the latter could take a grievance to Whitehall where the government,committed to boosting neighbourhoods, might intervene.

There are, of course, already neighbourhoods among the 9,000 parish and town councils gathered in the National Association of Local Councils. Chief executive John Findlay predicts neighbourhoods would be offered options ranging from a purely consultative role, to a ward councillor with a budget through to a full council that runs services, as do some larger town councils.

'Looking at this as neighbourhoods monitoring targets for central government is really rather negative,' he says.

'What is driving Mr Miliband is that people do not feel a sense of ownership.'

As well as Mr Miliband, other powerful voices engaged in the white paper debate are Matthew Taylor, chief strategy adviser to Tony Blair, and Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation.

There is undoubtedly an intellectual head of steam building behind the case for devolution to councils and neighbourhoods, but such a change would fly in the face of Labour's centralist record. Will neighbourhoods mark a turning point, or will they be just a very local example of centralisation?

Trots and loonies?

Would the public really wish to get closely involved in neighbourhood governance, whatever powers these bodies enjoyed?

Mr Miliband encountered considerable scepticism at Labour's spring conference (LGC, 16 February), with Lambeth LBC councillor Jonathan Myerson (Lab) saying: 'I've watched across four years' attempts at devolving power down to local levels and, with one exception, I've never seen people come forward.'

Hackney LBC councillor Jessica Crowe (Lab) said in her borough: 'It's only rent-a-Trot kinds of people who get involved.'

The largest experiment in neighbourhood devolution took place in Tower Hamlets LBC from 1986-94, when the Lib Dems split the borough into seven mini-councils, devolving everything almost to ward councillors who also organised consultative meetings.

Stewart Rayment, a Lib Dem who chaired the Poplar neighbourhood, says: 'It was not my experience that either Trots or loonies turned up.

'There was a pretty good attendance from the public, and the estate area forums could easily get a couple of hundred people along.'

Significantly, it was people already active in tenants' associations and other community groups who predominated, not those new to neighbourhood involvement.

Mr Rayment says: 'I think the lesson is that people do not want to attend meetings when the issue is too remote, or abstract, or technical.

'They were very interested though in monitoring services though, right down to taking individual caretakers to task over the cleanliness of blocks.'

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