Local Government – Targets? Not even a promise

Local Government – Targets? Not even a promise

Local Government – Targets?  Not even a promise

In the third in a series of exclusive articles for Endeavour Public Affairs focusing on local government, Clive Betts MP writes about the Government’s commitment to localism saying that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the localism policy, or even the appearance of a policy, has been ditched, the Minister has gone, and the permanent secretaries have won.

Clive Betts is the Labour MP for Sheffield South East and is Chairman of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee.

To follow Clive Betts on Twitter – @clivebettsmp

The Coalition Government does not like targets.  I am not surprised.

George Osborne has missed each and every economic target he has made.  There is no chance of Grant Shapps’ house-building target being met – yes, the target by which he said we should judge the Government.  Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit timetable and savings’ targets are rapidly marching away from him.  And, when each and every one of the Government’s contractors on the Work Programme failed to meet the minimum performance levels, Mark Hoban MP avoided all mention of this in his progress report.

So, if targets are out, is direction of travel in?  Let’s take an example and see.

The Government has consistently asserted its commitment to localism.  Recently, I listened to David Cameron in a R4 Today interview re-state that his government was absolutely committed to devolution and determined to take powers from central government and give them to local government and local communities.  Such assertion sits ill with many of the facts, which show that, since he became Prime Minister, the Government as well as some decentralising measures has also taken a large number of powers from local councils and given lots of new powers to government ministers to intervene in, what had been, purely local decisions.  Even some of the localist measures such as neighbourhood planning have been very prescriptive.  Perhaps we should call it centralised localism.

Last December, the (then) Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark finally managed to publish a report on how the Government, department-by-department, was making progress on its decentralisation commitment.  For the moment, let’s put aside the fact that the original draft report had been submitted to David Cameron over 18 months ago.  At the Select Committee, Mr Clark told us how important it was to ensure that there was an annual monitoring progress report with a debate in Parliament.

We can view with some scepticism the three stars given to the Department for Work and Pensions and the classification of sub contracts of the Work Programme as localist measures.  It is also difficult to understand how Universal Credit is localist, and while free schools may involve local people they also enhance the power of the Centre and undermine the strategic oversight of elected education authorities.  But there are also good stories to tell about the housing revenue accounts, public health, and City Deals.

Fast forward to 15 April, when Greg Clark – now Financial Secretary in the Treasury, as well as Cities Minister – came back to the Select Committee with Liberal Democrat Communities’ Minister Don Foster.  Even given the well-publicised recent disagreements between the coalition parties it was unusual to say the least to have two government ministers saying very different things as they gave evidence side by side.

With a completely straight face, Mr Foster told us that the Government would not in future formally monitor department’s localist progress.  There is now no longer a decentralisation minister so there will no longer be a decentralisation report and all departments can do their own monitoring.  What nonsense!

Was this a surprise?  Not really.  Whilst paying lip-service to the Heseltine proposals, it was clear that the Government was busily watering down their content and that the single pot for local growth would be a fraction of that recommended.  The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has now decided to take a personal interest in the content of council’s publications, is taking powers to remove planning decisions from errant authorities, and elected councillors cannot be trusted with deciding on extensions to homes in their areas.

In truth, the importance of the regular monitoring report was the ability to use it as a vehicle for promoting localism and to shift blockages, with the back-up knowledge that the disinfectant of sunshine would be shone on institutional excuses for obstruction.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the localism policy, or even the appearance of a policy, has been ditched, the Minister has gone and the permanent secretaries have won.

Mr Foster suggested that select committees would be best placed to appraise decentralisation progress.  Well, we might just take him up on that. I can already sense the tremendous ministerial and departmental welcomes for a veritable tirade of oral and written parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, and individual ministerial and permanent secretary select committee appearances.

But this is not the same as one coordinated overview of the implementation of localism across government.  In 2011 the CLG Select Committee were critical of the “inconsistency and incoherence” of the Government’s approach and said that the “role of the Minister for Decentralisation promises to bring coherence and rigour and a sense of priorities to the Government’s programme for localism.”  The Clark report may have been an after the event attempt to join up departmental policy but at least it was an attempt.

If localism is to be more than an aspiration, a promise, a slogan, or a footnote, the Government needs to think again about hiding away from a regular serious analysis as to whether departments really are all in this localism together.  If not, then the promise we saw in 2011 will have been dissipated.

Published: Tuesday 30 April 2013

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