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Will the concordat lead councils to Wonderland?

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Has the Local Government Association entered Wonderland after the signing of the central/local concordat?

  • Agreement signed between LGA and Whitehall

  • Optimists say the document heralds a new era of localism and devolution

  • But cynics fear the deal is empty words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

The Local Government Association thinks it has entered Wonderland with the central/local concordat, signed just before Christmas, and has high hopes of a new era of localism, devolution and a positive attitude from Whitehall towards councils.

Some, however, fear the government will take a Humpty Dumpty-style interpretation of the concordat’s wording, which could undermine its meaning.

For example, spot the offending word in point 10, which states: “Councils have the right to address the priorities of their communities as expressed through local elections and to lead the delivery of public services in their area and shape its future without unnecessary direction or control.” ‘Unnecessary’ is the problem. Who is to judge what is ‘necessary’?

The concordat bristles with similar get-outs for those who do not want more extensive powers and independence for councils. For example, that the government will “progressively remove obstacles which prevent councils from pursuing their role”, where ‘progressively’ might mean during this parliament, or this century.

It is easy to pick holes but the LGA’s negotiators are convinced the concordat is more than warm words because they believe the government wants to promote localism and would not have proposed a concordat in the first place unless ministers were serious.

Indeed, when the LGA political group leaders met prime minister Gordon Brown, he surprised them by urging local government to be more adventurous and ambitious in what it asked for.

Despite this heavyweight support, there is a further problem for the concordat. This is that central government is not a monolith, as councils have previously learned to their cost.

Experience suggests that whichever department sponsors local government is enthusiastic about devolution. The Department for Transport can be supportive, but the ever-changing departments and quangos covering home affairs, education, health and unemployment have been markedly less willing to see councils intrude onto their patches.

One of the concordat’s key tests will be whether the Department for Communities & Local Government, or even Mr Brown, can make the rest of Whitehall take it seriously.

The concordat has 17 points, some of them simply descriptive, but among its highlights are some potentially important commitments by the government.

These include a “presumption that powers are best exercised at the lowest effective and practical level”, encouragement for councils to make greater use of the wellbeing power, and recognition that both central and local government have a “responsibility to devolve power”.
More startling, given the five percent cap on council tax increases, is the intention to “work towards giving councils greater flexibility in their funding”.

The concordat recognises the problem of Whitehall foot-dragging. Discussing local area agreements, it notes that success with these will require “major changes in behaviour and practice from central government departments”.

LGA chairman Sir Simon Milton (Con) describes it as good deal, even though negotiations over the references to finance dragged on until the eleventh hour (LGC, 20 December).

He called it “an important first step” towards a new constitutional settlement, with local democratic accountability at its heart.

“People want a local response to their concerns, and they want a local entity to take responsibility for the village, town or city they live in,” he said.

Sir Simon grabbed headlines by calling for powers for councils to sack local police and health service chiefs found wanting. That might have been pushing his luck, except that the concordat includes a provision to “increase local democratic accountability of key public services, in particular the police and health services”.

The government would not, presumably, have signed up if it found that idea objectionable in principle.

Sir Simon also marshalled an argument that localism was in central government’s interest, and not just special pleading by the LGA.

He told the LGA general assembly: “I can’t see why central government continues to think it is in its interests to take responsibility for things that it must by definition fail at.

“Governments are not responsible for chewing gum on the streets, but sometimes it feels like that will be the subject of the next ministerial announcement.”

As if to make his point about ministerial micro-management of local issues, a government announcement on councils’ performance on this appeared on 27 December.

Sir Simon detected a cross-party consensus “that we have reached the limits of what can be achieved through centralism and that the solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges will only be found locally”.

Other LGA political leaders share much of his view, and his enthusiasm for the concordat.

Labour group leader Sir Jeremy Beecham said the concordat is “quite important, though it’s not a programme, it’s a direction of travel”.

He said Mr Brown had been “very encouraging to us to be more radical”.

“He used the word ‘buoyancy’ about the financial side which I took to mean we could press again for repatriation of business rates or for assigning a proportion of income tax to local government,” Sir Jeremy added.

Richard Kemp, Liberal Democrat group leader, said: “It’s a good start if they mean it.

“This is the first document I have seen which recognises there are two levels of government and both have rights and duties.

“Gordon Brown told us in the context of constitutional reform he thought councils should be more adventurous in what they asked for.”

Independent group leader Keith Ross welcomed the concordat, but said it was “a creature of the DCLG and I would urge it to get its message across to the rest of central government, especially the education departments”.

“If one part of government does not take it seriously, then it fails,” he said.

Cllr Kemp said he thought the DCLG had “signed the concordat in all sincerity”. However, he added: “The test will come around the country negotiating LAAs. Will other government agencies, departments and quangos see it as just talk from London?”

Sir Jeremy complained about past obstruction by other departments, but said “that is less an issue of ministers than of civil servants.

“One of the flaws is that we see the permanent secretary at the DCLG, but we need a way to engage with other permanent secretaries.”

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, was less sanguine about the concordat, pointing out that “local government is always bargaining from a position of extreme weakness with central government”. He added: “I suppose getting local government recognised in this way is a step forward but it is not exactly the constitutional document that would guarantee its position”. Central government will always, he noted, intervene if it wishes to.

There are plenty of holes and escape clauses in the concordat, but perhaps the most important thing is that it exists at all, and that central government need not have troubled with it if it intended to resist change.

It will surely be cited in debates by both sides within a day of its publication Harrogate BC had issued an angry statement that North Yorkshire CC’s intention to end its highways maintenance contract was “against the central/local concordat, say highway chiefs”.

Expect more in this vein.

Concordat highlights

  • Reference to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which refers to local authorities “possessing a wide degree of autonomy with regard to their responsibilities and the resources required for their fulfilment”

  • Reflection of local government roles and responsibilities in constitutional reform

  • Presumption that powers are best exercised at the lowest effective and practical level

  • Reducing the burden of appraisal and approval regimes, ring-fencing and the volume of government guidance

  • Acceptance that central government behaviour must change to make LAAs a success

  • Greater flexibility for council funding

  • More local democratic accountability for public services, in particular the police and health

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