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ANALYSIS - PARTIES SHOW OFF DEVOLUTION CREDENTIALS

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>> Kelly and Cameron battle to outdo each other on decentralising powers...
>> Kelly and Cameron battle to outdo each other on decentralising powers

>> 'Double devolution' concept lives on

>> Kelly still has to convince Cabinet

By Nick Golding

It is the ultimate local government fantasy - the two main parties are competing to devolve as much power to councils as they possibly can.

After decades in which both Labour and the Conservatives have seen centralisation as the answer to the nation's ills, both the communities and local government secretary and the leader of the opposition have undergone Damascene conversions to localism.

But delegates at the Local Government Association annual conference, where Ruth Kelly and David Cameron's promises were made, have long memories. They are more than aware that previous fine words have not been matched by action.

The audience to Ms Kelly's speech chortled when they heard how she believes action will finally be manifested. The Lifting Burdens Taskforce she announced might be chaired by the respected Telford & Wrekin Council chief executive Michael Frater, but there was much scoffing over whether it will really do what it says on the tin.

Mr Frater is expected to recruit an all-star cast of leading local government figures to help him recommend what targets should be removed from councils. But similar initiatives have been attempted in the past only to see other government departments refuse to relinquish control.

In an LGC interview, Ms Kelly admits that the support of other departments for deregulation is by no means guaranteed.

'I have a job within Whitehall convincing my colleagues that they need to streamline and dramatically reduce the number of targets they have and bring in a performance management system which reflects the new reality that local authorities can be trusted and can deliver well at a local level,' she says.

'That's my intention in the white paper and over the next few months I'll be working towards that end.'

For once, there has been optimism that the government is serious about slashing targets. Lord Bruce-Lockhart (Con), the chairman of the LGA, last week stuck his neck out to predict that ministers would implement the deregulation ideals set out in the association's Closer to people and places report.

The report envisages ministers slashing close to 1,000 targets and replacing them with 30 agreed 'national outcomes', in a stroke liberating officers from the need to look up to Whitehall. In future they should be able to decide for themselves how to implement priorities.

But when asked about the extent of the red tape bonfire, Ms Kelly insists she is 'not getting into the numbers game'.

She explains: 'I'm not signing up here and now to precisely how many targets we need and how many performance indicators. What I am clear about is the need to streamline the current system - we need to leave more space for local innovation and local priority setting.'

Ms Kelly might have been coy when speaking to LGC but she did raise expectations in her speech, talkingwith apparent passion of removing local government from the 'centralising treadmill' and of Whitehall learning the 'devolutionary habit'.

The future, she predicted, would see a 'trusting state' in which councils have 'presumed autonomy' to run services.

But councils will not have complete discretion - she pledged not to hesitate to use capping powers if she considers council tax increases to be excessive.

And, although she appears to have dropped the phrase, Ms Kelly wants to retain the 'double devolution' deal envisaged by her predecessor David Miliband under which councils are given new powers and freedoms if they in turn give local people a greater chance to take the decisions that affect their lives.

Ministers have continually reiterated that local government will not be forced to adopt any national system when it comes to community engagement.

But that raises the question of how this autumn's white paper can implement neighbourhood empowerment. A local government bill is likely to be brought before Parliament early in the new year but few understand how it is possible to legislate to give local people greater control over their destiny.

Many councils find their existing consultations fail to arouse the interest of their local population and, although ministers can reel out a list of examples of the public taking action against crime or running a community centre, many councillors report apathy when it comes to them helping to plot a future for local services.

The secretary of state refuses to say whether it is possible to legislate for empowered neighbourhoods, pledging merely to 'learn from the best of what's happened on the ground'.

Ms Kelly is regarded by many as an unlikely figure to champion local empowerment and to lead the dismantling of the centralised state.

She moved to the Department for Communities & Local Government from the Department for Education & Skills, widely regarded as one of the most centralising departments.

Many directors of children's services believe they lost their ability to direct education as schools came to find their relationship with Whitehall grew ever more important.

The new breed of trust schools Ms Kelly envisaged as part of the latest round of planned reform would operate as their own admissions authorities, independently of local government, and there will be restrictions on councils building new schools.

However, Ms Kelly insists that even at education she was no centraliser.

'I was very clear that there should be a strong, strategic role for local government in education. It's something I promoted very strongly,' she insists.

'Most people would agree that the influence and power of local authorities strategically over education has increased since the advent of the Education (and Inspections) Bill.'

So now Ruth Kelly is apparently signed up to the localist cause. Even if that suggestion is mocked by many in children's services, many other figures believe her, with Lord Bruce-Lockhart going so faras to insist she is more committed to decentralisation than Mr Miliband.

Ms Kelly could well be a convert to localism but doubts remain whether now really is the time for the government to bring about a devolutionary revolution.

An embattled Tony Blair insists he can continue with his public service reforms but some question whether he remains strong enough to wrench powers from Cabinet ministers and their civil servants to restore them to local government.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair is of course set to be replaced by Gordon Brown, a man not known for his willingness to grant others financial freedom. Such fears have been deepened by warnings from Sir Michael Lyons, the man charting the future of local government, that his findings must be pragmatic and moderate enough to win the support of ministers.

However, Ms Kelly is adamant that localism can win the day, pointing out that Sir Michael is reporting to the Treasury as well as to her department, as if to prove that Mr Brown is keen to devolve.

'I don't think [saying it's the wrong time is] a correct analysis at all,' she states. 'Now we are facing a tipping point with the devolutionary agenda growing in importance. There's a growing realisation in Whitehall and among my colleagues in government, in local authorities, and elsewhere that we should be devolving more, rather than centralising.'

She is right - that realisation is growing. But action is what matters.

Buzzwords

Number of mentions in Ruth Kelly's speech

Communities13

Devolution6

Neighbourhoods3

Tipping point2

Top-down2

Bottom-up1

No one-size-fits-all1

Red tape1

Cameron plan goes back to the future

David Cameron has pledged to revive the spirit of Joseph Chamberlain to localise power, making councils less dependent on Whitehall for cash.

Speaking at the LGA conference, the Conservative leader said he sensed 'a change in the wind', calling for devolution to enable local politicians to be as successful as the 19th century reformer.

Mr Cameron called for a change in the balance of council funding so local government is less dependent on Whitehall grants, thereby reducing the gearing effect which means small increases in expenditure lead to disproportionate increases in council tax.

He said: 'We need to get to a situation where what local councils spend is closer to what local councils tax. One thing we need to look at is whether there are national taxes we could somehow localise.'

More predictably perhaps, Mr Cameron also made four specific promises relating to traditional bugbears of his party. He pledged to abolish regional assemblies and the Standards Board, to phase out ring-fencing of government grants and to oppose local government restructuring.

Speaking to LGC, he also confirmed that he was a 'fan' of city mayors - seen by many in his party as a way of giving the Conservatives a chance in Labour's heartlands - and said mayors could also appear in other parts of the country.

Drawing a clear line between his attitudes to localgovernment in cities and the shires, he added: 'I think you'll often find in rural areas a feeling that they're too much being told what sort of structure and what to go for.'

Mr Cameron predicted the rise of '21st century Chamberlains' but when it comes to Tory policy, like Ms Kelly's policy, local government will want to see the details before it judges whether great local leaders really are on the verge of Tory empowerment.

It appears he could adopt a more prescriptive attitude to deciding structure in cities than to his true blue friends in the shires. If this really is the case, one might ask whether devolution to your own party and imposition on others really amounts to local empowerment.

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