After many months of expounding the merits of decentralising power, Eric Pickles’ Localism Bill finally emerged from its chrysalis.
And while it may not be dainty – with ‘Volume 1’ alone weighing in at 184 pages – for the localists amongst us it is certainly pretty.
The bill represents a massive leap forward in the government’s plan to transfer power away from the centre to councils and beyond, to communities. For local authorities, the creation of a General Power of Competence is a truly seismic change, reversing the presumption that local government can only be trusted to do the things that Whitehall allows – instead allowing them to do anything and everything except those things that are specifically prohibited.
But the big winners from the bill will be you and me. Giving communities the ability to shape the development of their surroundings is a fantastically exciting step forward for people power, particularly when backed up with the new Community Right to Build and Community Right to Buy.
On a slightly less positive note for councils, this butterfly of a bill was accompanied by a scowling bouncer in the form of the local government finance settlement. Even though most in the sector had been working for some time in anticipation of substantial cuts to government grant, it was striking that a recent survey conducted by Localis, which was completed by over a quarter of all local authority finance directors across England, showed that not a single respondent thought the spending review was better than expected.
However councils’ preparation was illustrated by their willingness to consider innovative solutions about how to protect front-line services, with nearly three-quarters of FDs saying they are thinking of merging services with other councils, or considering outsourcing service delivery to the private sector (71%), voluntary sector (69%) or community organisations (63%).
It is indisputable that the settlement has dealt a difficult hand to local authorities. But councils must respond positively and make intelligent use of the resources they will have over the coming years to ensure that the impact of the cuts is minimised. A ‘salami-slicing’, business-as-usual approach will not suffice. Councils must think radically about how they support and empower their residents and introduce new service delivery models, with further support from government – particularly over initiatives such as community budgets where the power of Whitehall civil servants to stymie good ideas has been all too obvious.
Alex Thomson, chief executive, Localis