Ministers and MPs have clashed again over the government’s approach of endorsing localism but criticising councils that deviate from preferred policies.
The government gave its response to the communities and local government select committee’s June report into localism last week, and insisted localism was not “circumventing” local authorities and defended communities secretary Eric Pickles’ so-called policy of ‘guided localism’.
The select committee, chaired by Labour MP Clive Betts, had delivered a withering judgment of the government’s approach to localism, claiming it was “incoherent” and would be undermined by moves to bypass town halls and hand power directly to communities.
But responding to the report’s claims that Mr Pickles’ approach of ‘guided localism’ was “unhelpful to local authorities”, the response said empowering local government “does not mean that ministers, as nationally elected politicians, should be denied the right to express their opinions on matters which affect public life… this is the sign of a health democracy in which all participants – including local government – have a voice”.
Mr Betts dismissed this response, saying: “It is unrealistic to maintain that pronouncements from Whitehall on local policy decisions unpalatable to ministers do not undermine more positive developments, such as the removal of performance targets for councils.”
He also expressed concern that there was no reference in the government’s response to the progress report that decentralisation minister Greg Clark has been preparing over the summer. “We accept that the government prefers each Whitehall department to have flexibility in how it implements localism, but without some means to compare their actions to common goals it remains impossible to judge whether departments are merely paying lip service to decentralisation,” he said.
The government response, published on Friday, rejected claims it had failed to adequately define what localism is. “The government’s interpretation of localism is that power should belong at the lowest appropriate level. Depending on the activity or function in question, the lowest appropriate level may mean individual citizens, public service professionals, local neighbourhoods or local level institutions such as local authorities.”
It added that for some services or functions, the lowest level may indeed be national government.
The committee had also claimed wider public sector reforms were creating “a parallel democratic structure” for policing and schools that suggested the government was “more interested in circumventing local government that further empowering it”.
The government response claimed the lowest appropriate level for power “will not always be local government” and said it did not accept it was “more interested in circumventing local government than empowering it” nor that a fragmentation of services would be an inevitable consequence.
“The role of democratic accountability will vary, depending on the nature of the service in question. The government does not agree that this need entrench silos between services,” the response added. “Mechanisms such as community budgets will provide an important vehicle for supporting integration of services and this will be further reinforced by the proposals in the Open Public Services white paper for local authorities to be the people’s champions for all public services in their area.”
The Department for Work & Pensions had also faced criticism for being resistant to devolving power to local institutions. But the response insisted that the government’s Work Programme represented “an unprecedented opportunity for local government, communities and third sector organisations to get involved in back-to-work support”.
“Our providers have been given broad discretion to work with communities and local government to tailor the support they provide to local priorities, and local links were a key factor when awarding contracts,” it added.