The arrival of a new secretary of state at Eland House inevitably means a new consultation about the future of local government.
LGC readers with big libraries will by now have a significant collection of such documents, stretching back to 1997. With the summer holidays now under way, is this a report worth packing as a ‘good read’ on the beach?
The latest John le Carré novel might be a more enticing option but, nevertheless, the new John Denham offering is worth a read.
The words ‘council’ and ‘councillors’ are used much more than ‘community
The Department for Communities & Local Government’s new boss has certainly put his stamp on Strengthening local democracy, published as Parliament was finishing for its lengthy summer break.
For a start, the document is written in jargon-free English, and has escaped the ‘empowering strategic involvement’ style of language that has been a feature of so many recent Whitehall publications. The words ‘council’ and ‘councillors’ are used much more than ‘community’.
The key element in Mr Denham’s proposals is the enthusiastic pursuit of the ‘Total Place’ approach.
Unlike a number of earlier policies, Total Place is a relatively straightforward idea whose application could enhance local government power.
Although not new, the idea that the budgets of all local public service providers should be aligned is a strong one. Local government, with the magic ingredient of elections, would be the natural leader of aligned public service spending. The Conservatives are broadly on-side for something similar.
If effectively implemented, Total Place would allow local government to influence the use of virtually all local public expenditure. The government wants to expand the scope of such influence, beyond the scope of services within local area agreements.
So far, so good. But the route chosen in Strengthening local democracy is to extend local government’s ‘scrutiny’ of other bodies’ local spending programmes.
DCLG appears to believe that the strength of arguments put forward by councils and local voters will be sufficient to bring about a re-alignment of NHS, police, schools’ and other budgets.
The problems is, all these services will still look upwards to their Whitehall paymasters. Unless ministers and civil servants are given incentives to work together at the local level, no amount of ‘scrutiny’ of budgets will change their behaviour.
DCLG’s heart may be in the right place, but will the Home Office’s or the Department of Health’s?
Strengthening local democracy also expands on the evolution of multi-area agreements, particularly in the city regions around Manchester and Leeds.
The document includes a tortured discussion of how to secure accountability and visibility for these new sub-regions, with the possibility of city-region leaders, elected mayors or new metropolitan authorities.
The consultative paper also discusses the proposed Leaders’ Boards, to be put in place to work with regional development agencies on regional planning.
Oddly, there is no mention if the likely interplay between these new boards and the regional select committees of MPs which are just starting to operate.
The government has also taken on board proposals by the Communities and Local Government Committee to formalise the central-local relationship somewhat and, crucially, possibly to set up a new joint Lords and Commons committee to review central-local relations.
Overall, Mr Denham has got off to a good start. However, he may have very little time in office to implement the proposals in his new document.
New Labour may have saved the best till last.