Mark calls for local communities to be given greater say over local services

January 18, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in Annual conference of the New Local Government Network

• I think events of the past few weeks have brought arguments about the role of local government and the localism agenda into perspective. Whilst the public and the media are asking how Ministers could - apparently - allow unsuitable people to work in schools, a number of us were wondering why on earth Ministers were taking decisions like these in Whitehall at all.

• At the same time, we are seeing police and fire authorities facing merger and the schools White Paper offering greater freedom from the Town Hall when in my experience, schools would prefer freedom from Whitehall instead. And the idea of a good local hospital has become something of a quaint, old-fashioned idea in this age of competition in public services and the 'choice' agenda. And as for the notion of local authority housing, it is fast becoming a thing of the past. So it's no wonder that even Ministers are now talking of a democratic deficit in local government. There is a deficit - I'm afraid - largely as a result of government policy.

• If we are serious about tackling the major issues within communities like deprivation and promoting social justice, it simply doesn't make sense that key services like education and housing are being broken up in this way and that joined-up, strategic thinking at a local level is being jeopardised.

• So you've probably noticed by now that I am pessimistic about the future of local government despite the warm words from the Minister earlier today. It isn't the first time we've heard heartening rhetoric from Ministers about the importance of local communities and about the need to re-engage with citizens at a local level but the language of localism never seems to be backed up by the reality of government policy.

• Of course local councillors should be given a greater say over the services in their neighbourhood and they should be able - for example - to work closely with the police to identify priorities for their area. But anyone who's actually dealt with these kinds of issues at a neighbourhood level will tell that so often they find the police's hands tied by Home Office targets and directives and that the dead hand of corporate centralism still dictates much of what is happening within neighbourhoods.

• My dealings with local government over the past twenty years and more have consistently demonstrated that communities and neighbourhoods are best served when local authorities - at all levels - are given the freedom to innovate, the freedom to choose their own policies for the area and the resources to carry those out functions. In fact, local authorities have shown themselves to be more than willing and able to devolve powers to a neighbourhood level where they get the best results.

• I read reports this morning in the newspaper that devolving funding to local councillors might well become government policy. Well in Stockport - my local authority - we've been doing that for years. And furthermore, local councillors - at a neighbourhood level - have control over planning decisions, possess devolved budgets for local highways work and local shopping centres have their own delegated funding to boost the neighbourhood economy with some considerable success. Given the freedom to innovate and control over their destinies, many local authorities are already putting neighbourhood governance into practice.

• So in finishing, I'd like to congratulate the New Local Government Network for putting the case not just for localism in such an effective way, but also for making the case for neighbourhood governance. It appears that those efforts have paid off and that Ministers are now paying lip service to the idea that engaging communities at a local level is the most effective way to tackle the key, quality of life issues. I fear, however, that government policy on the big issues like education, health and local government funding is travelling in the opposite direction despite the rhetoric.

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