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An open letter to the new local government Ministers

June 22, 2009

This appears in the current issue of the Municipal Journal:

Dear John and Rosie,

Welcome to your roles at the Department for Communities and Local Government

It is good to see two experienced and highly-regarded ministers taking the top local government posts.  We are also pleased to see John Healey, who won the respect of the sector, staying on as your colleague in the department, moving to the housing brief. 

There will be mixed views in local government about the policy positions that Mr Healey took as local government minister, particularly, of course, because our sector has a party political dynamic at play, but all of us knew he was fully in command of his brief, was genuinely interested in the sector, and maintained a strong dialogue with us.  He played a big role in getting the local area agreements established, which have created leverage across government and at a local level.  As the architect of the sub-national review, Mr Healey also championed multi-area agreements and city-regions, which are broadly welcomed.

Former secretary of state, Hazel Blears, marked out the political dimension as her territory. Views on Ms Blears, who once described herself as a Marmite personality, are mixed. At the LGiU, we enjoyed a good relationship, and we were keen to see the opportunities in the empowerment agenda that she advocated. However, you will know it clearly failed to grab hold in Whitehall or local government.

There have been other indicators, too, that your department has sometimes lacked impact. An example is the central-local concordat, signed jointly with the Local Government Association. The right sentiment was there, but in reality, other government departments ignored it.

Similarly, the central and local partnership, which in the John Prescott era commanded the attention of Cabinet members from across government, has become moribund. 

There is little time, though, to look backwards. With probably around 10 months to the next election, and in the face of a perfect storm caused by the recession and the expenses scandal, there is much to do. 

I am delighted you have already announced that you will be re-examining the relationship between central and local government as part of the current debate on democrat renewal. I noted also the prime minister’s statement in Parliament in which he said: ‘We must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly-defined powers to local Government’. 

You will find, though, that local government is impatient after a decade of localist rhetoric. This is no time for the language of ‘if’ and ‘whether’, we need action now. Instead of more ‘consultation’, I recommend that you look at the Lyons report, and the many other reports both independent, and government-led, including the recent select committee report on the Balance of power, which together provide a huge body of evidence and recommendations. 

They all agree that ours is one of the most centralised systems of government in the world, and that an extension of real local democracy will lead to significant improvements in communities.

With ever-rising public expectations, greater competition for scarce resources, and clear variations in local needs, it is right that local communities should get to make the decisions about local priorities.

Whitehall fears this because under the current structure and culture, ministers think they will be held accountable for these differences in local service provision – the ‘postcode lottery’. The answer is to shift political and democratic accountability from Whitehall to local communities and the ballot box – through local councils rather than unelected ‘partnerships’.
The first step is to agree a new settlement between central and local government. You should get all Cabinet ministers fully signed up to the principles of local self-governance; an assumption of local autonomy and discretion; the removal of financial and legal constraints; and minimal direction and intervention by central government.

This can be enshrined in law and constitutionally in the Local Democracy Bill which is currently going through Parliament. The next bold step in implementing the new settlement would be the introduction of a single local commissioning model for public services, starting with policing and healthcare, that puts the power into the hands of councillors, held accountable at the ballot box. 

It is an idea whose time has come, it is your chance to make a radical difference to strengthen our democracy and I urge you to seize the moment.

Yours, Andy

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