A Royal Let-down?
It’s been quite a week for local government. We’ve had elections, Mayors and scandal, and it was yesterday topped off with the Opening of Parliament and the traditional Queen’s Speech. After the events of the last weeks, months and years I found myself waiting for this year’s offering with baited breath. Just how far would localism be pushed now? How would the Health and Social Care developments be developed over the coming session? What exciting new areas would be on the horizon and find policy wonks up and down the country furiously debating until the early hours?
To be honest, I was left feeling just a tad deflated.
Don’t get me wrong, there is lots of good stuff in there. The changes to the Audit Commission set-up which we have ourselves looked at before way back in 2010 are worth unpicking further at some stage and proposals around the Draft Care and Support Bill (amongst others) will be far reaching, but throughout the whole thing and whilst reading follow-up articles I was reminded of a line from a great piece by the LGiU’s Andy Sawford:
Time was that local government promoted legislation in Parliament. In the late 19th Century in particular major bills, such as on Public Health, were initiated by councils. When the Queen addresses Parliament this week, it would be good if those words “my government” meant local as well as central government.
In his piece Andy proposes an alternative Queen’s speech, and includes such gems as ‘The Localism and Statutory Duties Bill’ (aiming to cut through the 1000 or so statutory duties places upon local government, regardless of actual requirements for them) and the ‘Community Budgets Bill’ (aiming to build on the work undertaken previously with community budgets in their many forms and Total Place pilots).
These haven’t made it through to the version read out today by Her Maj, but the difference between these and those which were is that these are focussed solely on local government.
It feels very much like we’ve become the Cinderella of the piece; locked away in the dungeon and forced to do the dirty work as ordered by those upstairs, making sure everything runs as well as it can do, taking the blame when things go wrong and having responsibility for fixing them while others get to go to the ball regardless of whether their virtues (or lack thereof). Trouble is, we don’t seem to have a fairy godmother on the horizon.
A more radical queens speech would have gone a long way to restoring some real pride in local government, and showed that it really does matter. Without straying into big ‘P’ politics too much, through the recent elections local government has recently been held up as a litmus test for the opinions of the nation. Voters turned out en-mass to show their support or opposition to this government, or didn’t to show their apathy. Why does this then not carry over in the minds of politicians? We’ve already said that the fact that all politics is national is a travesty, but it appears that this situation is set to continue into the foreseeable future.
Admittedly the Localism Bill intended to put real power back into the hands of local authorities, and to be fair it has started to do this. There is still a long way to go, but it has set out a clear vision of a country where local authorities are trusted to get on with things and know what’s best for their local communities. Sometimes we are even allowed to make local decisions (as long as they are the decisions which central government agree with).
Now isn’t the time to take the foot off the gas; it’s the time to push on and make this less a change of direction and more about establishing that this is where we are going and how we’ll get there. Localism and the devolving of powers should not be seen as a task which has been ticked off and moved to the ‘completed’ file; it’s an ongoing process which needs more focus than ever and more thought. It needs this thought turned into action, and the legislative back-up across a wide range of areas if it’s not to be seen as a pigeon-holed approach not suitable for the really important stuff.
And this pressure shouldnt just be coming from central government either – we in local government should be demanding it. The sooner we realise that we’re not a group of voiceless, faceless bureaucrats the better; we are the direct link between local people and government, providers of essential local services and one of the most tangible parts of the democratic process. We are at the cutting edge of public service, and are literally the difference between life and death and success and failure for the people of this country.
If we don’t stand up and shout from the rooftops about our need as local authorities to not just be local but also have authority then we are missing a trick. The LGA, LGiU and others are doing so, but when was the last time you heard chief execs or council leaders openly pushing for this? Most are concentrating on keeping their heads down and their eyes focussed solely on the local prize, missing the wider argument which might be more difficult to have but which just by having could help the cause of local government immeasurably.
It’s some time before the next opening of parliament and by that stage general elections will be on the horizon. We need to raise our voices pretty soon if we have any chance of forcing our agenda into the consciousness of the nation and decision makers. If we continue with this polite and contrite attitude, carefully balancing unhappiness with the way local government is being treated and funded with a stiff British upper lip and a ‘keep calm and carry on’ mindset then we will end up no better off than we are now.
If Cinderella wants to go back to the ball then she’d damn well better demand to try on the glass slipper regardless of the protests of any ugly sisters, after all Prince Charming isn’t going to come knocking very often.
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