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In an exchange of e-mails, Anna Randle and Malcolm Smith trade blows on whether the devolution revolution is a winn...
In an exchange of e-mails, Anna Randle and Malcolm Smith trade blows on whether the devolution revolution is a winner or a dud

Devolving power to neighbourhoods is the latest big idea. It has divided the local government world into those who believe it will empower citizens and increase engagement, and those who fear it is another way of stripping power from councils. We asked two experts on either side of the divide to swap e-mails on the subject.

Anna Randle is head of policy at the New Local Government Network

Malcolm Smith is an independent consultant specialising in the public sector

Neighbourhood governance: What's not to like?

Dear Malcolm, Neighbourhood governance offers communities more influence over their area.

It can empower and engage citizens, increase the accountability of service providers and offer new levers for driving up service standards.

What's not to like about that? It is a challenge for local government, but councils cannot ignore it. The case for greater freedom from central government diktat must be partly based on councils' own acceptance that local discretion does not stop at the town hall. Communities with different needs sit side by side, and the issues over which citizens want a say vary widely. Councils need governance systems to reflect this variation.

Neighbourhood governance offers big opportunities at all levels. It can help central government achieve elusive service improvements which can only be delivered locally. It can support citizens themselves by allowing them new influence.

There is also a win for councils. If they demonstrate they can respond to very local concerns while maintaining a strategic overview of the whole locality, they strengthen their claim of unique and legitimate leadership of the wider community.

Neighbourhood governance: A VENEER OF EMPOWERMENT

Dear Anna, Times columnist Matthew Parris recently wrote: 'In modern public administration, it is time to question our fashionable obsession with process and refocus on outcome.' (The Times, 26 February) I agree.

The almost messianic zeal with which many have embraced the notion of localism avoids a more significant problem, namely the lack of effective and competent local political leadership.

Too often the very people we elect to manage and deliver local services hide behind yet more engagement, inclusion, listening and consultation.

The idea that a veneer of local empowerment is going to engage more people or deliver more effective and efficient services is unconvincing. Local government faces a huge challenge from the Gershon savings drive to deliver improved frontline services. I am not convinced this government is prepared to allow more than limited freedom of action locally. All the New Deal for Communities programmes has done is create costly bureaucracies and give a few local people the illusion of control.

I - and I suspect most people - don't want to spend hours in church halls with the usual suspects, debating the finer points of street services. All we want is our council to deliver them efficiently and effectively and let us get on with our lives.

It's not all about draughty church halls

Dear Malcolm, On one point we agree - having spent many evenings in church halls witnessing 'democracy in action', I know

the finer details of bin collection can be marginally less fascinating than watching Emmerdale.

But your view of local government's leadership role sounds a little too Big Brother. And would people already engaged in forms of neighbourhood governance agree?

Ask members of a good parish council what they care about and you are likely to receive a lengthy speech on the finer details of grass cutting or maintenance of the local playground.

Also, let's remember that neighbourhood governance is a variable beast - both in the issues it deals with and the right structures for achieving desired outcomes. Definitions of neighbourhood governance in Office of the Deputy Prime Minister papers range from consultative forums to citizens running community assets, and a whole spread in between.

Finally, neighbourhood governance is not incompatible with leadership by councils, or the efficiency drive. No one is suggesting everything should be done locally. It is about getting leadership and services right at different levels, and listening to and empowering other people who might be best placed to deliver effectively.

The aforementioned Mr Parris also once described his old boss Margaret Thatcher as 'a cross between a B-2 Bomber and a sabre-toothed tiger'. Surely our ideas about leadership have moved on since then.

Is this really about better customer access and response?

Dear Anna, Glad we can agree about the church hall thing. I sense that what you are advocating is better customer access to local service providers to secure better and more responsive delivery. If this is the case, I'm right with you.

However, I'm not sure this is what the government had in mind with this governance thing. From my reading of the ODPM's Citizen Engagement document, published in January, the government has in mind new mechanisms wrapped in the cosy term 'neighbourhood' as a means of solving a mish-mash of perceived and real problems.

It is interesting the preface to the document has a graph of declining voter turnout in elections, both locally and nationally. While we can both agree this is not healthy, I am not convinced the recipes presented will do much to reverse this trend.

I believe democratically elected councils are, by and large, effective bodies for delivering and managing services.

Setting up yet more tiers of governance and involvement will do little to address long-standing weaknesses in councils with poor political leadership and sub-standard service delivery. Thankfully the comprehensive performance assessment process has forced many to improve.

The government's own document recognises that 'unduly extensive devolution to the most local level is unlikely to be effective and efficient', but then tries to convince us we should try again.

Let's accept this is really a consumer, rather than a governance, drive.

Neighbourhood governance is about citizenship, not consumerism

Dear Malcolm, Forgive me, but I fear that in your world, local government would be reduced to a complaints switchboard. This might be efficient and in some respects desirable, but surely influence over wider issues will not be catered for by a 'Please press option one' model.

What we are talking about here is citizenship, not consumerism; government, not just service delivery. Will an effective complaints procedure really empower citizens? Will it give them a say in long-term issues affecting their community? Will it build links between people? Will it really help councils build their legitimacy as real community leaders?

I agree that complaints should be dealt with quickly and effectively, and all too often councils don't stand up well next to customer care giants such as Tesco. But local government is not that simple.

It is not about selling a product which can be returned or replaced. You say you want councils to show leadership, yet you appear to reduce them to straightforward providers. Local government should be more ambitious than that.

If councils are truly to deliver community leadership, they must engage at very local levels with the citizens they serve. These are not inefficient and ineffective indulgencies.

So let's forget governance and talk about citizenship

Dear Anna, Of course it is more than simply allowing everyone to have better access and a more competent response from our public service providers. But for many of us, that would be a great place to start.

Citizenship is clearly about more than connecting with a complaints switchboard at your local council or hospital. It can mean involving yourself with your children's school, joining the amenity society or being elected to local office.

Community leadership is not the creation of more vehicles, bodies or forums which allow elected members to stall on making judgments and choices on our behalf.

Clearly consultation and involvement are essential parts of this process but most decisions are choices where some win and some lose. Pretending more layers of neighbourhood governance will assist in this process allows us to concentrate endlessly on process - too often at the expense of better outcomes.

So, Anna, I remain unconvinced that this new localist emphasis on public services will do much to make delivery more effective, or rectify the perceived lack of citizen involvement.

Of greater concern should be the fact it could allow many councils and members to further avoid doing what they were elected to do - lead.

Who do you think won the debate?

What would you have said? E-mail your views to

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