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'Clark failed to dismantle the command state'

Robin Hambleton
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Can you remember who said: “We want to create local communities where… local government is directly accountable to ordinary people, not lost in the complexities of Whitehall”?

The answer is Greg Clark, now business, energy and industrial strategy secretary. In 2003 Mr Clark, then policy director for the Conservative Party, co-wrote with James Mather a blistering attack on Labour’s centralised approach. Total Politics: Labour’s Command State provides an analysis of the four drivers of centralisation: targets imposed from Whitehall, centrally controlled funding, bureaucratic audit and inspection, and rigid terms and conditions.

In their final sentence in the pamphlet, the authors wrote: “Our task is to dismantle the command state, and by doing so to lead Britain towards a better society.”

It is disappointing that when he became communities secretary Mr Clark appeared to have forgotten much of this wisdom.

The ‘devolution deal’ method he developed, along with the centralising Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, constituted an approach to sub-national governance that is best described as “lost in the complexities of Whitehall”.

Consider the legislative arrangements for introducing combined authorities. In each case parliamentary orders of mind-boggling detail have to be prepared under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.

The West of England Combined Authority Order 2016, which relates to Bristol City Council and Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire Councils, has eight parts and six schedules. It is fiendishly detailed and not the only order that will relate to this territory.

The deal-making model Mr Clark created will go on year after year, on an area-by-area basis, because ministers will decide whether to allow specific combined authorities to make changes to their deals. The central state appears to be ready to determine what councils can and cannot do on a case-by-case basis.

Council leaders face a dilemma. On the one hand, many feel it is desirable to participate in the devolution deal dance. They hope some crumbs will fall from Whitehall’s table. On the other, some have indicated that enough is enough. Several deals have collapsed, for example in the North East, Norfolk and Suffolk and Greater Lincolnshire.

In any case the sums involved in the deals are small. In the West of England the deal envisages £30m a year coming to the sub-region. Bristol has half the population of the area and might anticipate £15m, but central government support to Bristol is being cut by £156m a year between 2010-11 and 2019-20. The deal is a smokescreen. The funds it will deliver are ten times smaller than the massive cuts central government is imposing. Ministers may say income from business rates will fill this gap but this would be far-fetched.

In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference last year Mr Javid said: “I’m proud to be continuing with our ambitious devolution agenda.”

If Mr Javid wants to end centralism in England, he would be wise to read the excellent analysis by his predecessor in 2003, which says local government should not be seen as the unquestioning servant of a command state but be accountable downwards to citizens.

Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol. His book, Leading the Inclusive City, is published by Policy Press

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