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Councils, not PCCs, offer best prospects of true place-based leadership

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Commentary on a power struggle in Norfolk

Theresa May has been so preoccupied with Brexit during her two-year premiership it is hard to demonstrate that the PM has any discernible interest in localism or where power sits within this country.

Of course, during this period there have been government policies which have had a huge impact on councils and their ability to act for the good of their area. However, austerity’s disproportionate targeting of councils is a continuation of the Cameron/Osborne era while the slowdown on devolution and general failure to change course on (social) housing policy or social care funding is probably more the result of a complete lack of attention from the PM and her administration on localism and local services rather than her issuing a statement of centralist intent.

If there is a defining monument of Ms May’s attitude to localism it is the post of police and crime commissioner, the directly elected officials charged with setting a direction for policing locally. The post came about through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, the brainchild of Ms May when she was home secretary.

Speaking in the run-up to her successful Tory party leadership bid in 2016, Ms May boasted that PCCs proved that she had “actually given power away from the centre”, presumably in an attempt to dispel the notion of her being a control freak.

The idea of PCCs arose from legitimate concerns that the 43 former police authorities, including councillors, magistrates and independent members were opaque.

However, local government has generally been suspicious about this unprecedented rival to its local democratic legitimacy. In the 2012 elections at least, the PCCs hardly won the endorsement of the public, with an average of just 15% of voters turning out. In 2016 this figure increased to 26% (although – ironically, from the perspective of the battle for local democratic legitimacy crown – the extra turnout may have largely resulted from the contests being held on the same day as the local government elections).

Local government’s fears of the dilution of local power were increased when Ms May proposed that PCCs take over fire and rescue services from councils “where a local case is made”. Provisions to allow this were included in the Police and Crime Act 2017, paving the way for Norfolk’s PCC to this summer seek control of the county’s fire service.

Launching a consultation on his move in July, PCC Lorne Green (Con) said he believed the “governance of the fire service sits better alongside a fellow emergency service, rather than a council committee which also oversees libraries, museums, archives and arts”.

He added: “One of the real benefits of the role of PCCs is that it is not hamstrung or delayed by a complex structure of committees, sub-committees and immovable meetings. PCCs can make informed, evidence-based decisions in a sharper, quicker and more effective manner.”

The PCC commissioned a Grant Thornton report into the move. This scored a proposal to move the fire and rescue service under the governance of the PCC but keep it independent of her office at 14/16, one point higher than continuing with it under county council control. However, the PCC-fire-takeover score assumes a “general consensus” in favour of the move, including the support of the county council, and the report warns: “If a local consensus cannot be achieved, the deliverability score… will be severely affected.”

The scope for that consensus to emerge fell into doubt this week when Norfolk CC responded to the plan. It insisted there had been no assessment to the proposal’s impact on operational and emergency response to public safety, could result in reduced funding flexibility and there was no evidence that the new model would improve collaboration.

Margaret Dewsbury (Con), chair of Norfolk’s communities committee, said: “Norfolk CC has been running Norfolk Fire & Rescue Service since 1974. Based on many years of experience, NFRS is managed efficiently, effectively and economically. It is safe in our hands.”

There is also a broader issue here: do we really want to dilute local democratic accountability? Is it not better to have a single local democratic focal point for public service delivery to boost collaboration and provide clear accountability? And, if so, surely the council, covering such a wide range of local public services and with greater links to business and more direct links to both the young and old, is not a more natural partner to oversee fire than the PCC?

Examples of the sort of pioneering work councils can do with fire include proactive work to help residents prepare for possible emergencies, merging trading standards and fire and rescue service to form a single community protection directorate and the conception of safety campaigns to save 365 lives over 10 years.

The future of devolution is surely councils, with their widely-understood democratic role, being the leading force in bringing together all local services together to boost collaboration and offer a sense of place-based leadership. While you have to admit that Mr Green has a point in questioning whether a committee also overseeing libraries and the arts is necessarily the best focal point for accountability of the fire service, surely a council has more potential than a PCC in being the real leader of place?

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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