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ANALYSIS - RARE CHANCE TO REVIVE LOCAL DEMOCRACY

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>> 50 years of centralisation takes its toll ...
>> 50 years of centralisation takes its toll

>> Poll says 73% want neighbourhoods to gain power over services and budgets

>> No one-size-fits-all solutions

In the coming months, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cross divides and agree a road map for making English local government stronger and more democratic. The sound and fury, politicking and rumour mills will regularly cloud our sight of that prize. But it is there to be taken. So let's keep upmost in our minds the prospect of more local power to make our great cities, counties, market towns, villages and neighbourhoods flourish. If we start as we mean to go on, reinvention should not be left to the centre. After all, even Parliament's power is lent to it by people in localities.

The Power Inquiry said it loud and clear (LGC, 2 March): all is not well with our local democracy. Almost two-thirds of people did not vote in May. The same number say they cannot influence local decisions and do not trust their councillors. But much of this follows from 50 years of centralisation. Despite many good achievements, there is little sign that Whitehall delivers any better, and it is often trusted less. It is time to break the Catch-22. Local governance will never become more legitimate until it has more freedom to set local priorities democratically - and to carry them out.

The public are in favour. Eighty percent would rather have local decisions taken by their elected councillors rather than quangos, and 73% support changes that would give neighbourhoods greater control over some services and budgets (according to a YouGov/Local Government Information Unit poll). National government and councils can feel too distant to be relevant to people's everyday lives. That is why we need 'double devolution'.

The Local Government Association's manifesto for freeing up councils and strengthening the accountability of other services gives us half of the picture: more power for local government on things that matter in their areas, from strategic transport or development to neighbourhood policing and public health; fewer top-down constraints. But devolution within localities is harder to grasp - in part because we have too little in the

way of effective community governance today.

That is why the Young Foundation has been running a programme of research and practical action with areas around England. We have discovered that large authorities' ingenuity can be admirable. But evidence has confirmed that needs and priorities vary dramatically between neighbourhoods, and the process of local ownership and action often matters almost as much as the outcome. So we are recommending that instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all devolution blueprint, the enabling framework should offer more bottom-up powers for neighbourhoods to act on very local issues, as such public spaces; to influence decisions about strategic local services like planning, youth services or the police; and to call to account public agencies and decision-makers.

How could this work? Each locality should decide its own approach, drawing on what's already working and local priorities and aspirations. Where people want, they should be able to work through or set up neighbourhood bodies that can give a voice to communities and act to improve the area. This is happening already in many places, and many more will want to follow suit. According to the YouGov poll, 23% would like a new kind of neighbourhood council and 35% a neighbourhood forum which anyone can attend.

Yet many areas will lack interest or readiness. So in every neighbourhood or local community, councillors should be given the support and powers to take on a stronger frontline role. Councils and other service providers should provide citizens and communities with a responsive, involving and joined-up framework. People should have the chance to participate in planning or delivery, and to propose community initiatives or calls to action.

These proposals deliberately combine representation, service co-ordination and opportunities for direct engagement. Arguments between managerial, representative and participatory governance prove sterile when we see how they can work together. In Wiltshire, community planning and participation is leading to devolved decision-making, linking citizens with representatives across the tiers. Birmingham is considering how its devolved districts can engage neighbourhoods, and is one place discussing more bottom-up area agreements. In Bradford, participatory action planning and budgeting are joined by investment in neighbourhood data and a positive attitude toward elected parishes. Councils have been known to repeat Whitehall's error by controlling rather than enabling what happens below them. But many places are discovering the innovation (and even the economies) that can come from relaxing their grip, or working small.

Democratic representatives should play an important part everywhere. At the moment many 'backbench' councillors feel disillusioned, unclear about their role and where to strike the balance between representing the council or their communities. Drawing on emerging good practice from Newham LBC to Staffordshire CC, we suggest every ward or division should have at least one 'frontline councillor' with a clear mandate to represent community views, some officer support, and a small budget to make things happen. They should engage actively with local communities and service providers, broker relationships and help tackle problems. They should have a right of reply from service providers, and the power to carry forward a community call to action to hold failing services to account. Where there is a case, they should have the chance to hold neighbourhood inquiries involving citizens. Finally, they should have powers to join local bodies such as parish councils or schools, and to propose a local forum or council. A strong community role will energise and attract good representatives.

Meanwhile neighbourhood forums or partnerships could help engage citizens to shape services in their area, and have a voice in influencing wider strategic plans, services and decisions. They could sometimes be delegated additional powers over budgets and services, and work to address problems and call poor services to account. But bodies with a democratic mandate could go further. Reformed parishes or local community councils should have a liveability focus and well-being powers, and could call themselves neighbourhood, village or town councils. Parishes can raise their own precepts for local improvements. Many are strong; but others are sleeping. They need help to work constructively with their communities, strategic local government and partners, and to explore democratic innovations. If they meet certain tests (including engaging their frontline councillor), they could also participate in area governance, decide to take over responsibility for some very local services such as small repairs, a park, neighbourhood wardens or a community centre, and win greater influence over neighbourhood plans for policing or extended schools. It should be easier for local people to set them up - but also to challenge or abolish them.

We need a flexible approach which takes account of the variety of communities. The errors of the past can be avoided by maintaining a strong centre, protecting equalities and establishing robust standards. We would discourage unelected takeovers or decision by petition. But there is a case for renewing ancient traditions such as the parish poll, enabling community initiatives to drive local debate - and sometimes, action.

Our aim should be a 'call-and-response' dialogue between communities and local government such as that which has revived civic life in Portland, Oregon. But living local democracy cannot be delivered in an overnight 'big bang'. It has to grow. The decades-long task of making empowerment real is a task for communities and councils across England. Nonetheless, the stakes are high. Only if we rise to the challenge of the white paper debate will we have a chance of getting the Treasury to make the right decisions in 2007. The Young Foundation is preparing a briefing on neighbourhoods and community governance for the LGA and Improvement & Development Agency. If you have good examples, get in touch.

Paul Hilder directs the Young Foundation's Transforming Neighbourhoods programme

paul.hilder@youngfoundation.org

Councils must lead on double devolution, says Tony Smith

Most will agree with the principle of double devolution. But many will be wondering exactly what steps they should take to meet their side of the bargain.

Greater clarity is certainly needed on neighbourhoods, so the Young Foundation's work is well timed. It has drawn on practical experience from councils across the country, including Birmingham. Three messages stand out:

>> Neighbourhoods need to be about diversity. There is no one-size-fits-all approach

>> Councils already have a vast amount of experience of working with neighbourhoods and that experience needs to be built into the white paper

>> Councils must grasp the opportunity of double devolution.

A useful checklist might start with the following items. Much of this will build on existing good practice:

>> A map of your 'natural neighbourhoods'. Neighbourhoods are usually seen as small areas with a population of up to about 8,000 in urban areas. They should also be recognised by residents, so they will probably not be the same as wards >> A strategy for developing neighbourhood bodies, such as forums and helping such organisations to engage with the council and other local services

>> A plan for introducing neighbourhood management schemes, particularly if you are in a neighbourhood renewal area, and for mainstreaming this work

>> A policy on parish councils (particularly in urban areas)

>> Area committees or other devolved arrangements and plans to develop these

>> Policies for developing the community leadership skills of councillors and supporting them in this role

>> A policy covering the transfer of assets to community organisations which takes account of Treasury guidance

>> A policy for commissioning services from small community or voluntary organisations.

Tony Smith, corporate policy team and London office, Birmingham City Council

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