The ‘sticky’ stuff

In the latest edition of the London Review of Books, Ferdinand Mount makes the point that although the UK has successfully bequeathed strong models of federalism and decentralisation to the Commonwealth and post-war Germany, within the country itself, the issue has ‘remained a fad for pointyheads’. Amen to that.

A few years back, when Localis published Hitting Reset – a case for local leadership our set piece report on reforming central/local relations, the central idea was that it would be beyond endurance, if, after enduring the Brexit water torture years, the divorce from Brussels merely resulted in Whitehall vesting all the repatriated powers. At the panel launch, Sir Simon Jenkins, who served on the Redcliffe-Maude commission and made an impassioned appeal for ‘Big Bang Localism’ some 15 years earlier made the honest – if wounding – observation that another hopeful report piled on top of all the others laid on over the years wouldn’t make the Treasury change its views or mind. For that we surmise, more direct action might be necessary. Or a change in perspective to the hyperlocal as a focus for change.

Since the pointyheads among us have a job to think and sometimes produce a patter of hopeful pamphlets once in a while, we moved on to look at the perspective of double devolution and how to go about it – Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – creating powerful communities. The impetus for this was the then imminent prospect of a White Paper on English Devolution and Economic Recovery (remember that?) – which we are now going to enjoy in the shape of the coming ‘levelling up White Paper’.

Post Spending Review, cue a newer cottage industry the size of Cornwall, analysing what this all means, where’s Gove going and what this all portends in fattening up the pig before the market day – which will be the anticipated 2024 General Election. The pointyheads have more or less said their piece so now it remains for officials to advise and ministers to decide and let us live with the consequences. The common element to Localis’s recent greatest hits on devolution and place leadership has been the convening role of local government. And it is here that one detects the greatest threat to achieving what we expect to be demanded under the rubric of levelling up.

Returning from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, one wasn’t present to too much by way of love or affection for the role of local government in what passed for formal or informal debate. Clearly this wasn’t the time, given the recent reshuffle, or the place, given the desired leadership theatrics, to stake a meaningful case.

But some among the footsoldiers would have returned with the abiding thought that levelling up, if seen by the public as an exercise in redistribution of resources, is a threat to the local vote in the south east heartlands at the very least. The concern is that the experience of red wall MPs in local government has been that of perpetual opposition. Hence little trust or hands-on-the-wheel experience among this influential cohort of what local government can achieve to deliver national policy coherently in places. And, with the praise and focus heaped on community solutions as the answer to improving local services, a fear that local government itself should be braced for a further diminution of its role. The great Gove bypass is seen as a natural continuation of his work as coalition education secretary and the massive expansion of the academy programme until it became universal. Unlike 2010, and unless space can be cleared from an already congested mid-term parliamentary timetable, this might be an overly doom-laden scenario from the unloved.

But if the public service reform adjunct to addressing the regional economic rebalancing is to see a thousand community trusts in areas from adult and children’s social care to a whole host of mainstream council concerns, there is no reason this couldn’t be achieved at pace to achieve critical mass ahead of the next General Election.

Judgment in this matter might have been already reached. But for our councils the next year or so might be dominated by a rear-guard action to advocate and champion its unique convening role, the ability to make economic and social policy stick on the ground by dint of the local democratic accountability so lacking in say academy or NHS trusts.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis

This article first appeared in The Municipal Journal