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Putting together a coherent strategy for local government has proved a struggle of epic proportions, says Richard V...
Putting together a coherent strategy for local government has proved a struggle of epic proportions, says Richard Vize

Moses and the Israelite's 40-year exile in the wilderness is the account of a desperate struggle that eventually leads a nation to the promised land. It is a biblical legend that many of the people working on a coherent strategy for local government can relate to.

The fact that the ODPM, led by local government minister Nick Raynsford, has embarked on such a complex and grand task demonstrates a growing confidence in a department that, for two or three years, was seen as being near the bottom of Whitehall performance league tables.

Representing the fourth incarnation of the old Department of the Environment, and artificially constructed to satisfy the ego of deputy prime minister John Prescott, its lack of clout in the corridors of power has hobbled attempts to find meaningful answers to questions as basic as, 'What is local government's role in education?'.

The stream of white papers published by Labour's first local government minister, Hilary Armstrong, nominally represented an agreed view of policy. However, the willingness of other government fiefdoms to put them into practice was patchy at best. Indicative of this was the readiness of the departments for education and health to make major policy decisions without even bothering to pretend they had consulted the country's councils.

But, in the political equivalent of planets moving into alignment, a series of crucial factors have exposed the necessity for delivering a long-term vision for local government and provided the opportunity to do so.

Labour's move from a command-and-control approach to public services in its first term to earned autonomy in the second did provide a glimpse of a less constrained, more locally driven and responsive world.

Now, new localism is seen as the next step. The likes of the New Local Government Network, Home Office minister Hazel Blears and Blairite policy outrider Alan Milburn are all pushing the same idea: reinvigorating local democracy and tackling the calamitous public disengagement from elections by taking political power to neighbourhoods and localities.

Many in local government, notably Local Government Association chair Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab), are deeply sceptical about such notions. But these overtures represent a growing belief among those close to the prime minister that the next chapter in the renewal of public services should be written locally.

There are ministerial and departmental alignments, too, pointing the way to developing a long-term local government strategy. Mr Prescott and chancellor Gordon Brown have thrown their weight behind Mr Raynsford's initiative, along with prime minister Tony Blair, and a Cabinet sub-committee is also pursuing it. In addition, the ODPM feels it has the confidence, respect and capacity to pull it off.

Mr Raynsford is well regarded inside and outside government. LGC understands that he came very close to being promoted to the Cabinet-ranking post of chief secretary to the Treasury in the last reshuffle, but lost out at the last moment through horse-trading around the new post of children's minister. His detailed grasp of local government policy puts him in an ideal position to negotiate a route through the labyrinth of conflicting and overlapping issues involved.

On the civil service side, permanent secretary Mavis McDonald has recently reorganised her senior team, which has strengthened capacity on local government. Local government director general Neil Kinghan has nailed his colours firmly to the mast of this ambitious project. He has under him a team working on the detail, led by the highly regarded Mandy Skinner, who, like him, has recently moved across from the LGA.

But despite its new-found confidence and high-level backers, the ODPM is not trying to construct a policy for other departments to sign up to. Instead it is trying to develop policy jointly, with civil servants collaborating across departmental boundaries. Despite advances in cross-departmental working over the past five years, it is still rare for policy to be conceived in this way. However, while not everyone appears willing or able to deliver it, the signs are it is generally working.

But it is far from certain this will be sustained when, in the autumn, ministers and their senior teams begin to negotiate fundamental issues such as the role of local government in running the police, and, most contentiously, the role of councils in education.

A central issue that ministers and officials are still edging around is England-wide unitary government. As has been revealed (LGC, 28 May), there is growing support in government circles for unitary councils, but at present ministers are not planning to offer this as an option. Instead, they will open the doors to discussions on 'patterns of governance' and it will then be up to the revolutionaries to make their case. While many think unitary government is the way forward, it is unclear who is likely to play the leading role in articulating that view.

An alternative way forward would be for districts to reinvent themselves as community leaders but divest themselves of administrative functions, which are sometimes inefficient in terms of economies of scale.

For the LGA, delight at the opportunity presented by Mr Raynsford's policy drive will be tempered by the practical political difficulties of finding a consensus on the way forward. The association's clever footwork over the balance of funding review is unlikely to work this time, as the government searches for specific answers rather than a basket of ideas.

Devolution to neighbourhoods, powers of government intervention, the relationship of councils to regions and the role of councillors are just some of the issues where the LGA needs to cajole its members into a conclusion.

For councillors and officers across England, this is an opportunity to engage in a debate that could have profound and positive consequences for local politics. The question being posed by Mr Raynsford - tell me your vision for local government and how we can all deliver it - is a commandment that is unprecedented in recent times. Every council, whatever their political hue, should have an answer.

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