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By Mithran Samuel ...
By Mithran Samuel

Since coming to power in 1997, the Labour Party has carried out the most thoroughgoing extension of the electoral principle of any government in living memory.

Devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London has been accompanied by 11 directly elected mayors, each on the back of referendums.

More locally, 39 New Deal for Communities schemes have been created, most of which boast a majority of elected residents on their boards.

Later this year, people in the three northern regions will vote on the creation of regional assemblies, while new foundation hospitals have been told to hold elections to their governing boards by 1 April.

However, it seems Labour is far from done and looks set to go into the next election proposing further democratic extensions, all under the banner of new localism.

Predicting which proposals will make the final cut for the next Labour manifesto is no easy task, particularly as they are at each at different stages of the policymaking process.

Plans to make police authorities wholly or partly directly elected have already reached the green paper stage (LGC, 7 November 2003).

Ideas on giving neighbourhood boards direct control over so-called liveability issues - such as parks, street cleaning and some aspects of community safety - were included in the party's Big Conversation (LGC, 5 December 2003).

Others, such as health secretary John Reid's floatation of directly electing primary care trust boards (LGC, 1 October 2003), are still at the blue-sky thinking stage.

But, according to Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, at least some should find their way into Labour's election plans, particularly as new localism looks set to be one of the key battlegrounds.

He says: 'Will this feature in the next election manifestos? You bet. Lots of things will be badged under new localism.'

This opinion is given further credence by the recent publication of a New Local Government N etwork pamphlet backing the principle of new elected local bodies and supportive comments from Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (LGC, 13 February).

Both think-tanks have the ear of government and have previously played the role of outriders for New Labour policy.

Council reaction to the government's brand of new localism has so far predominantly taken the form of the 'silo democracy' critique, popularised by Local Government Association chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab) (LGC, 27 June 2003).

Such bodies, it is argued, will fragment local governance by pitting competing democratic mandates against each other and hamstringing attempts to join-up services.

But how far should councils oppose the government's plans, particularly given the growing momentum behind them?

Mr Travers is clear the government's programme is dangerous for local government and reflects anti-council attitudes within Whitehall and Westminster.

He says: 'If you were at the heart of Whitehall you would be very relaxed about new localism as you could chip away at the local government system by creating all these wonderful new institutions.'

However, he adds that the government's brand of new localism has followed no coherent pattern and evolved through a series of separate initiatives, which are hard to place under a single banner and would have differing impacts on councils.

He says: 'I can see a world in which allowing neighbourhoods to raise money to pay for additional policing in their area could exist without causing a great deal of harm to local government.

'But wholly directly elected police authorities are a different kettle of fish.' These would, he argues, make the already challenging task of joining up local services a lot more difficult.

The mood among chief executives also seems to be one of pragmatism.

Darra Singh, chief executive of Luton BC, says the plans for police authorities are a valid response to high levels of public ignorance about their role and function.

He adds: 'You can close that gap through direct election or by better communication with the public about the role of local council representatives [on police authorities].'

Mike Pitt, chief executive of Kent CC, while rejecting elected police authorities as potentially undermining council's community leadership role, adds: 'I do not think the government's proposals are a crisis [for local government]. I would like to encourage central government to open up a much stronger dialogue with local government on localism.'

Kettering BC chief executive David Cook argues that whatever new localism means it has little to do with institutional architecture, existing or prospective.

He says: 'I suspect the public do not know, or care much for, the distinction between districts and counties, or between local and central government. I am not sure what new localism is, but I hope it means higher standards of public service.'

The government's call for community-level politics is being pre-empted by a number of councils who are devolving power down from the town hall.

For instance, Southwark LBC has just created eight new community councils, consisting of ward councillors and with limited capital spending powers.

Chief executive Bob Coomber, while a big supporter of the experiment, warns that there is a limit to how much you can devolve.

He says: 'The more functions you devolve the more you get conflicts between what individuals want for their immediate areas and what's best for the wider locality.'

This is particularly the case, he says, for community safety, one of the areas most favoured by the government for localisation.

Lucy de Groot, executive director of the Improvement & Development Agency, says that this means new models of local democracy will require an explicit recognition from government of councils' role in reconciling conflicting local priorities and interests.

She adds: 'It will need to be clear who will take the difficult decisions. You can't go down this road without strong lo cal government.'

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