The world of local government is about to change.
Many of these changes might be characterised as negative; for example, the need to make substantial savings has single-handedly engendered a sense of panic within councils everywhere and left many worrying about the effect of these cuts on council services.
The Prime Minister: Less power please
However, some of these changes could will have a major effect on local government but at the moment we don’t know what the effect will be and whether it will be positive or negative. Of these changes the major shift might just be the ‘Big Society’ and the accompanying policy of decentralisation.
For those wondering exactly what this might mean for local government you can do worse than read a speech by Greg Clark given in July this year. The speech is here but the key passage is probably this:
As well as this three-fold explanation of what the Big Society is, the Prime Minister also set out the three basic methods by which government can act to build it up:
These are decentralisation, transparency and a third category that I’m going to refer to as social finance.
Again, these are intertwined, but also readily distinguished.
Transparency is about the redistribution of knowledge: The state must stop withholding information that would allow a much wider range of actors to identify social needs and propose new ways of meeting them.
Social finance is about the redistribution of money and other assets. Instead of passing down through layers of absorbent bureaucracy, public funds should get straight through to wherever and whoever can use them most effectively. This means contestable contracts, payment by results and a revolution in the availability of upfront investment for social purposes. It also means communities having the right to save, run and own buildings and other under-used assets for social purposes when they could do that job best.
Of course, there’s no point in making information and funding available to new providers of social goods, if they aren’t allowed to use them in new ways. Thus the third and most fundamental building block of the Big Society is decentralisation, which is, of course, about the redistribution of power.
I know this is a long quote but I think the direction of travel is important here. My reading of this, and I am probably in a minority with this position, is that the Government is acting out of a deep conviction and commitment to decentralisation. Not only do they believe that decentralisation is one way to improve the quality of our public services but they go further. I would argue that the Government (and by this I mean both parties within it) believe that decentralisation is the right thing to do ideologically.
If is the case then the key task for local authorities is not just to work out where decentralisation can deliver better public services, or even to lobby for more powers to be passed to local Government, but to work out how local authorities can operate in a world where power is increasingly pushed downwards.
This poses a lot of challenges, not least because authorities have been used to towing the Government line and, to coin a phrase, ‘feeding the beast’ for years.
I want to write more on this in the coming weeks but would also welcome your thoughts and comments: Am I right that the Government are fully committed to decentralisation as a concept rather than as a tool? How can local government deal with this? Is Local Government going to be jumped by a commitment to pass power to the lowest possible level, as it has with school’s policy?