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COMMENT - GRIP ON PURSE STRINGS STARTS TO SLIP

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After a month of bad news on local autonomy, the government's plans to pilot local area agreements represent a majo...
After a month of bad news on local autonomy, the government's plans to pilot local area agreements represent a major step towards greater spending freedom for local government.

Announced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the agreements will be piloted in nine councils and a signify a long-awaited reduction in the myriad funding streams flowing into councils.

For eight, non-mainstream funding will be simplified into three blocks - children and young people; safer, stronger communities; and healthier communities and older people. One council will enjoy even greater spending freedom, with its funding streams reduced to just one pot.

The nine will agree priorities within each block with the government, but decide locally how to deliver them.

Though the agreements will cover a tenth of the typical council's budget, it is a step in the right direction and has a pioneering quality sorely missed in much local government policy.

The ODPM stresses that the agreements are intended to boost community leadership.

This notion has too often been an abstract substitute for restoring real power to local government. If community leadership can now be taken to mean more decision making over how to spend substantial sums of money, in harness with real involvement from those old local government friends local stakeholders and citizens, it has finally evolved into a weighty and significant concept.

However, the localist angels have not driven out the centralist demons quite yet. A document setting out the plans makes it clear the government's motive is not devolution for devolution's sake, but efficiency.

It also stresses a 'mature and intelligent conversation' between central and local government will be vital to the agreements. A discussion paper on the 10-year vision for local government, published alongside, points out that community leadership 'cannot be legislated for', depends on individual councils and must be earned not granted. And there is still conflict between the aim of a joined up approach to children's services, and silo funding of schools.

The subtext is that there is still a long way to go before the centre trusts councils enough to roll this idea out across the country. As such, the importance of comprehensive performance assessment is greater than ever. If the overall movement by councils is not toward the top end of the table, the government is likely to retrench.

But the local area agreement pilots are a cause for celebration. Nine down, 379 to go.

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