Magazine article Public Finance

Power Failure

Magazine article Public Finance

Power Failure

Article excerpt

Ministers claimed that the local government reforms would be the most radical for generations, but the reality has turned out to be more prosaic.

The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, to give it its full title, was published just before Christmas and takes forward the pledges outlined in Octobers white paper.

It is clear that the government thinks it has delivered 'radical and devolutionary reform'. But the extent to which the BiU actually devolves, and is truly radical, is open for debate. We need to define what real devolution would involve and compare the measures in the white paper and the Bill with this.

There are in fact six dimensions to devolution to councils, dimensions implied by the white paper itself: increased control over public services in the community; greater financial autonomy; freedom from topdown inspection and performance management; greater influence over other local organisations; more prominent and effective leadership; and increased local accountability. As we shall see, the proposals fall well short of delivering these.

In terms of the first dimension, there are some measures in the white paper and the Bill that extend local government's powers and functions, such as changes to the processes for introducing byelaws and creating parish councils. But these are small beer. Within councils there are many who advocate transferring a variety of local public services to municipal ownership, such as policing, health and further education. But the government has not even opened up any debate on this.

Next is finance, an issue the white paper and the Bill have assiduously skirted. Certainly it would have been wrong to pre-empt the Lyons Inquiry's final report, but there can be little doubt that the scale of what is being considered in relation to local finance is limited. Any substantial recommendations that Lyons might make will be hindered by the report being published so late in the day. At this stage, however, the debate must wait for Lyons to show his hand.

Deregulation was the white paper's one true triumph. For too long, local government resources and energy have been absorbed by an overly complex and demanding performance and inspection regime. The paper's proposals to rationalise the entire system, to draw together Local Area Agreements and the partnership agenda with the post-2008 performance assessment regime, were appropriate, simple, sensible and likely to deliver improvements.

How unfortunate, then, that the Bill itself has so quickly undermined the white paper's promise. It clearly gives the secretary of state the power to agree, change or 'designate' any part of the LAA, whether relating to identified central interests or to purely local issues agreed and negotiated locally. This can't be right, and seriously questions the model's devolutionary integrity. Power is given with one hand and taken away with the other.

Turning to influence, one can have no argument with the Bill's overall direction. There is a series of measures intended to make councils first among equals in the locality, privileged in partnership because of their unique democratic mandate and power of wellbeing. These include a legislative duty on identified public sector partners to co-operate with the LAA process, an enhanced leadership role for councils in Local Strategic Partnerships and extended powers to scrutinise public sector partners named in the 'duty to co-operate'. …

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