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The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has given birth to no less than three long-awaited policy pronouncements on...
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has given birth to no less than three long-awaited policy pronouncements on local government.

The amount of documentation is frightening, a bit like watching a paper avalanche descend.

But somehow it all seems to be about something other than councils - the real focus is a new layer of government sitting below them.

The first document, Sustainable Communities: people, places and prosperity is the second part of the ODPM's five-year plan, a statement of aims that all government departments must produce. The other two, Vibrant Local Leadership and Why Neighbourhoods Matter, are part of a series of consultation documents being published as part of the 10-year vision for local government.

The effect is something of a blur. It is exceedingly tricky to unpick where the five-year plan ends and the spin-off documents for the 10-year vision for local government begin.

One thing shines through, however - the centrality of neighbourhood governance to this latest tranche of the ODPM's thinking. Councils are instructed to embrace the concept at all costs, actively encouraging neighbourhood bodies where there is demand.

The government has bent over backwards to stipulate this is not about circumventing councils - au contraire, it is about working through and with local government. But does it protest too much?

The ODPM may not be circumventing local government. What it is circumventing is the real challenge it faces - to give more powers to councils. Successive waves of reform - new political structures, comprehensive performance assessment - have delivered a little influence, perhaps, and a shot in the arm to managerial performance, but few substantial freedoms.

Neighbourhood governance is no bad thing in itself. But set alongside the lack of progress on the balance of funding and developments like the gradual erosion of council discretion over school funding, it is a slap in the face.

Increasingly desperate rhetoric from across government shows it is pinning huge hopes on neighbourhood governance to drive up service standards - and make sure that improvement is noticed. Yet it is blind to the potential of councils to respond, innovate and produce excellence locally, were they given more freedom.

The government has taken a different, and creative, tack - but it has missed the point. Neighbourhood governance will only deliver results if it runs alongside the real freedom for councils

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