Seven years ago the Government published the Localism Bill, announcing it would herald a major reversal of decades of centralisation and instead truly empower local government, communities and individuals to act on local priorities.
Councils would no longer be required to act as quasi branch offices of central government, there would be a new power of ‘competence’ for local authorities, levels of council tax could be increased significantly but only if supported in a vote by the local residents that had to pay it, directly elected mayors would be encouraged to become the norm across local government and local communities would have a real and proactive say on the shape of future development.
I had the misfortune of having to read the Bill when it was first published so I could put together a briefing document for clients and can remember that my initial impression was the lack of a coherent theme or thread throughout the document.
The Bill ran to dozens of pages, if not scores, covered several hundred different issues, many of which were quite ambitious but lacked a coherence or overall vision. At the time it did seem like the Secretary of State had written to all 400 or so local authorities to ask for suggestions to include in the legislation and had added the responses to the Bill in the order they had been received in the post.
In my original briefing note I concluded that whilst the Bill was a reasonable step to decentralise powers with a number of quite ambitious proposals, it was difficult to see much take up against the programme of ‘austerity’ also being carried out by central government which was hitting local government disproportionately.
I finished by noting that the true success of the Bill would be if local elections were stopped being used as a way to punish the National Government of the day and instead were decided in the main by the record and future plans of the council that the election was actually being held for.
In some areas there have been successes; there is certainly a greater ability for local communities to input into the planning of future housing development; the Community Infrastructure levy is definitely a better mechanism than the Section 106 negotiations; there has been some take up of elected mayors and some authorities have embraced the opportunities to work on cross border issues with their neighbouring councils.
On the debit side, central government is still proceeding with austerity with local government funding which is now resulting in appalling levels of short termist thinking, worse still is Westminster ‘allowing’ additional council tax increases to be levied to fund sticking plaster solutions for issues such as social care and failing to come up with the more radical solutions which are so desperately needed. And what of the electoral litmus test? Regrettably, I also suspect that local council elections will continue to be used as a way of ‘punishing’ the national government of the day, regardless of its political colour, for some time to come.
This article was written by Frank Browne, Consultant Director at MPC.