John Denham is emphatic that councils have an important role at the helm of local services, whether they provide them or not, using their democratic mandate to shape the area they serve.
But he accepts that authorities face significant barriers to exercising their place-shaping potential.
“The real challenge at the moment is to move beyond the functions that are simply formally allocated to local councils, to creating authorities that have got the ability to shape, as much as possible, all public service spending within an area,” he says.
“This fits in with the Total Place programme, but there’s a great deal of discussion about how you create the architecture of
what Whitehall needs to do to make that possible.
“Localism needs to be a way of delivering things that citizens are entitled to wherever they live. We marry the idea of localism with the idea of entitlement. For example that your care needs should trigger an appropriate response wherever you live in the country, rather than wide variations in a postcode lottery.
“Philosophically, that’s the Tory approach to localism, you take away standards and have no idea of entitlement and it’s purely about local decision-making.”
Mr Denham believes that councils that see themselves mainly as service commissioners may be less able to benefit from the budget pooling envisaged under Total Place.
“One of our issues is going to be how we get a Total-Place style approach when people say ‘it’s not in my contract’ in a way that in public services you can do,” he says.
He is pleased with the enthusiasm with which the spend-mapping project has been embraced.
“For a government idea, Total Place has taken off with a life and a momentum of its own, it’s not something that you have to push people through tree trunks to get them to do - which suggests we’re on to something,” he says.
“This way of working offers ministers a better way of delivering the outcome that they wanted than the idea of creating a new
pot of money attached to a new target or a new activity. The fact that we’ve got 70 so-called parallel places out there, with people saying ‘why don’t we just get on and do this?’ is important.”
Mr Denham is scathing of Barnet’s proposed budget-airline business model.
“They either meant something profound - not bits around the edges of a few premium services but a fundamental reduction of the ambition of your local services then asking people to pay more; or it means nothing at all,” he says.
“With budget airlines, you can choose whether you want to fly on them or not, and the problem with local services is that you don’t choose where you live.”
John Denham is secretary of state for communities and local government