One of the themes that emerged very quickly after the general election results came in was an element of relief that first past the post has done its job in the end and delivered a majority government.
We have avoided weeks of “chaos” and “paralysis”, we were told. At the Local Government Information Unit, we were never really worried about paralysis because we know that most of the things that really matter to people – how our elderly relatives will be cared for, how our children will be educated, how our neighbourhoods will be keep safe and clean – are delivered by local government. All of them will keep happening, whatever power games go on in Westminster.
It’s ironic that all our focus has been on an admittedly dramatic general election, with local elections in 279 councils relegated to the background, even though they are more significant in shaping the services that matter most to people in their everyday lives.
But given that we do have a clearer result in Westminster than most pollsters were predicting, it’s worth asking what it means for local government.
It’s tempting to think that it will be just more of the same but I believe there’s a huge opportunity for local government to seize and set the agenda.
In the run-up to the election, George Osborne was clear that he sees devolution as an unfinished project for his second term but to date that agenda, though positive, has been too narrow, too focused on cities, too circumscribed by the Treasury. It’s a Henry Ford style of devolution in which you can have any form of localism you want – as long as it’s a combined authority with an elected mayor.
That’s led to frustration in many parts of the country, especially some of the big (Conservative) counties that are desperate for devolution but sceptical about the combined authority model. We need a much more open, deal-based system in which local areas put forward their own devolution models.
That puts an onus on local authorities to come up with realistic, well-grounded plans for devolution and to put in place the local partnerships they need to deliver it. Crucially, these plans must be as much about what they can deliver better as about the extra powers they need.
At LGIU we hear a clear message from our members about what local government wants and needs: fiscal devolution, more power in the hands of councils and communities and respect (and space) from central government.
We have a government that talks a reasonable game in these regards; the challenge for all of us is to make it deliver.
Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive, LGIU