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Denham’s chance to make a real impression

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June’s reshuffle placed a high burden of expectation on the shoulders of the newly appointed Secretaries of State ahead of the looming general election. Their success or failure may determine the fate of the Government.

John Denham’s appointment at the Department for Communities & Local Government was a posting he apparently expressed a preference for, an enthusiasm that came across in the consultation paper he published at our launch event.

The paper is essentially Mr Denham’s agenda for democratic renewal in local government. So how did it play with a localist audience?

Scrutiny powers are only a runner-up to the main prize of real power in the hands of elected representatives

Chris Leslie, Director, New Local Government Network

Proposals to give councils greater scrutiny over all local public services, including potentially the utility firms whether publicly or privately owned, were a welcome step towards revitalised local government.

If councillors have the right to hold all local decision-makers to account for how services help or hinder their communities, then local residents may begin to feel that it is worth turning out to vote.

However, scrutiny powers are only a runner-up to the main prize of real power in the hands of elected representatives.

In the discussion following his speech Mr Denham hinted that the Government may be willing to adopt the New Local Government Network’s proposal for pilot arrangements where local councils appoint primary care trust non-executive directors.

This would send a radical message about the democratisation of local quangos and be a firmer shift in the balance of accountability.

There were some strong signals that the Government would be willing to see constitutional reforms, including a proposal for a new joint select committee of both Houses of Parliament tasked with vetting legislation to ensure new laws devolve powers to local level.

NLGN has long argued that the legislative process should have a ‘checking’ mechanism to prevent unnecessary centralisation and there is consensus in Parliament now to make this change.

If the consultation period ends before the Commons reassembles after the summer break there must surely be a real chance that this reform can come to fruition.

One of the key tests facing the Government is how to disentangle the legal impairment left by the Court of Appeal ruling in the London Boroughs mutual insurance case, which overturned the applicability of the 2000 Act ‘power of wellbeing’.

Mr Denham suggested a narrow amendment in the current Bill might be possible, correcting that ruling and allowing mutual insurance arrangements once again. This would fall some way short of the general permissive power to allow councils freedom to act without constraints.

As a minimum, any narrow amendment must be wide enough to allow all mutual and shared service activities to be defined as potentially in the ‘wellbeing’ interests of a community, as otherwise each separate case could be ensnared in stultifying legal challenge.

While we would have liked more boldness on the balance of finance and distribution of power between Whitehall and localities, the consultation paper does open the door to potentially radical change.

Comparing the government’s offer with the Conservative Control Shift policy paper begins to give a sense of how the party manifestoes may gestate over the coming months.

Chris Leslie, Director, New Local Government Network

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