We are, without doubt, entering unchartered territory in local government. With the highest national budget deficit since the Second World War and our first national coalition government since the same era, financial and political uncertainty look set to characterise the next few years.
Yet unlike the post-war era, decades of centralisation now mean local government has its hands more tightly bound when it comes to responding to challenging times.
Some hope for the re-invigoration of local government can be sought in the two governing parties’ manifestos.
A clear commitment in the Coalition Agreement to ‘the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups’, as well as the appointment of Greg Clarke as Decentralisation Minister at CLG, could indicate a positive future for central-local relations.
We would also hope to see legislation bringing in a General Power of Competence as promised, alongside the devolution of key financial powers such as control over business rates.
However, these powers will still have to be set in the context of substantial financial challenge. Local government will get none of the protection afforded to health and schools, and if the latest IFS predictions are right that councils face 25% cuts, then local government will have to continue its radical reassessment of the way it delivers and commissions services.
Total Place approaches and greater collaboration across geographical and service boundaries must continue to set the pace for public service reform.
It was heartening, though, to see a review of local government finance promised in the Coalition Agreement. I hope that we will see many of the recommendations of the Lyons Review finally enacted, as well as NLGN’s proposals to introduce additional council tax bands, scrap capping and extend council tax benefit.
These welcome moves towards decentralisation still leave a question begging, however, about the role of democratic local government in this new world of ‘Big Society’.
Expect to see more power shifted towards community groups and citizens in terms of schools, planning and the ownership of assets, as the coalition government seeks to ‘roll back the state and roll forward society’ at local level as much as at the centre.
Moreover, emphasis on greater local accountability and transparency will increase scrutiny, and policies such as directly elected police chiefs will pose questions about the primacy of multi-functional local democracy.
In such unchartered territory, local government must prove itself to be the strong, stable and collaborative government sought by those at the centre.
Anna Turley, acting director, New Local Government Network