the way to go?
The pathetic turnouts in the first foundation hospital board elections should dampen the enthusiasm of the Whitehall policy enthusiasts for directly elected single service boards.
In the increasingly desperate search for the latest big idea to bolster the fading notion of new localism, some government policy advisers are considering imposing neighbourhood boards on councils. I understand the temptation to reinvent the wheel for the sake of a dramatic headline-catching policy announcement, or to spice up a manifesto. However, I would urge the government to exercise great caution. Just for once, can we research and evaluate existing good practice before announcing the panacea?
I support the extension of decentralised governance. It is inconsistent for councils to argue that extra powers should be devolved from the centre, without exercising the principle of subsidiarity within their own authority. There have already been huge strides in this direction using models appropriate for the localities concerned.
An analysis of council constitutions in June 2002 revealed 51% of English councils with a leader/cabinet system had formal area committees. Many more have supported area and neighbourhood consultative or advisory forums. There are also over 10,000 parish and town councils in England and Wales covering 18 million people. Added to this complex picture are a multiplicity of local partnerships running area-based initiatives and various independent community councils. It is a rare council that does not already have some kind of decentralised governance structure. Most will have several layers.
Furthermore, there are numerous representational models for these devolved bodies and considerable variance in the powers and budget freedoms accorded to them.
Decentralisation through neighbourhoods is not the only solution. There are three broad levels at which decentralisation occurs. The first is at the constituency level, with typical populations in the range of 50-100,000. For example the exciting new Birmingham initiative creates 11 districts in a city of 1.1 million. Then there is the multi-ward or area level with populations in the range of 20-40,000; Coventry City Council and Rochdale MBC are good examples here. Finally there is the natural neighbourhoods level, typically in the population range of 1,000-10,000. For example Middlesbrough has 26 community councils operating at this level. What a mess it would be if a specific, standardised model of neighbourhood governance were to be imposed on such creative local variety.
Where such localities exist, accountability through neighbourhoods can give a powerful boost to local democracy. Even then there are pitfalls to be avoided. For instance, unless councils are determined and equipped to confront the potential problems that arise, creating strong neighbourhood identification can run counter to community cohesion objectives in certain circumstances. Neighbourhood governance is also unlikely to be satisfactory as the main focus of participation for marginalised groups. The cost of setting up a comprehensive neighbourhood governance scheme in a large unitary would be prohibitive.
Most importantly of all, neighbourhood governance must not be grafted on separately as a substitute for democratising the principal authority or the local strategic partnership. The key to success lies in a positive relationship between the different democratic levels, with the respective roles and responsibilities and lines of communication clear and understood.
Research on parish and town councils shows they are generally most successful when acting as a neighbourhood forum and representing the needs of their reside nts to other service providers. Front-line ward councillor is also vital. The evaluation of the New Deal for Communities programme has shown neighbourhood governance works best when it is viewed positively as a support for the community champion role of the councillor.
Central imposition of a rigid model of neighbourhood governance would confuse lines of accountability and weaken local democracy. Neighbourhood boards, involving directly elected community representatives, being given responsibility for running local services would be a recipe for fragmentation, inefficiency and corruption if set up in the teeth of opposition from local councillors. Meanwhile, even those valuable regeneration initiatives not strangled by Whitehall red tape could flounder on dysfunctional structures locally.
Instead the government should consider working with a group of pathfinder councils to evaluate the impact of existing good practice and innovation in political decentralisation. The decentralisation programme also has important implications for the scrutiny and accountability of other public services, such as health and the police, and innovative forms of partnership working at sub-council level could also be piloted.
None of this is as sexy as a manifesto commitment to introduce directly elected neighbourhood boards to take over services from nasty councils, but it is more likely to increase democratic accountability and participation in the long term.
Chief executive, Local Government Information Unit