Eyes on the prize, by Dick Sorabji

27 Jul 06
Labour and the Conservatives are both vying to be the party of devolution, but do their proposals include the radical 'whole system' reform necessary to succeed, wonders Dick Sorabji

28 July 2006

Labour and the Conservatives are both vying to be the party of devolution, but do their proposals include the radical 'whole system' reform necessary to succeed, wonders Dick Sorabji

If words were the measure of political deeds then ten days in July saw the Labour and Conservative parties racing into a new era of English government, led by the local state.

Speeches by Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly and Conservative leader David Cameron have both proposed devolution of power from national to local government, enhanced local democracy and greater accountability to citizens and communities.

Their plans are surprisingly similar, which raises a few questions. Do their words mean what they appear to say? On closer inspection, are they the same? If the answers to these questions are yes, then a far more important question arises: will their words become deeds?

To convert words into deeds, Cameron and Kelly will need more than a clear picture of their destination. They will need to bypass the obstacles to devolution that have derailed so many previous initiatives. Mapping those obstacles has been a central challenge to the New Local Government Network's recent inquiry and report, Pacing Lyons: a route map to localism. Even if Kelly and Cameron have their eyes on the prize, do they know how to grasp it?

On July 5, at the Local Government Association conference, Kelly announced the creation of the Lifting Burdens Task Force, to come up with proposals for the removal of national targets and regulations. The task force added weight to her hints about the content of the forthcoming white paper.

She promised devolution in seven areas, including proposals that individual citizens need more choice, personalisation and power; communities need more information and more say in running local services; and local council leadership should be stronger. While supporting the idea of elected mayors, Kelly suggested other reforms for councils that do not want them. Councils should be enabled to spread their wings, taking a strategic role across other services and decisions affecting their areas. Major cities are to gain new powers; councils need more incentives to drive economic growth in their communities; and finally, Whitehall must realise that its role is 'not to interfere and micro-manage'.

Six days later, speaking on devolution from the town hall, Kelly described a ladder of involvement, including community calls for action, parishes and opportunities for groups to register to run local services.

There is an uncanny parallel with the promises made by Cameron in the same ten days. He too began at the LGA conference on July 7, pledging a 'bonfire of directives'. Going further, he promised to phase out the ring-fencing that now adds micro-management to 57% of local government grants.

Cameron also promised to abolish regional assemblies, moving all their powers down to local government, and said he would abolish the Standards Board if he became prime minister. His fourth commitment echoed Kelly's of two days earlier: no local government reorganisation.

In delivering the Chamberlain Lecture on July 14, Cameron gave details of his future vision. Like Labour, he focused on devolution below the town hall. He argued communities create success and the state's role is to support communities, not direct them. Community groups should be empowered to run local services, he said, while also seeing a greater role for parishes.

While Labour talks of a sense of place, Cameron argued for a 'sense of situation'. Cameron supported elected mayors and in their absence proposed direct elections for either a police commissioner, or the police authority. The Conservative leader had ideas to create an environment in which devolving from town hall to more local voluntary groups could be facilitated. Searching for tangible policies he tapped early New Labour by proposing social enterprise zones.

Ten days in July have laid out a domestic policy programme for this government and maybe the next. The policy goals suggest it is the same programme; the differences are in detail and rhetoric.

Do they mean it? All four speeches contain the usual small print of politics, ensuring that failure to deliver can later be defined as success – but that is the nature of our age. The similarities are too striking to dismiss the idea that there is real substance in these aspirations.

Both parties have begun their analysis by asking the right question: what do citizens want from government? Social and economic change is creating a far more complex society. As a result, it is ever harder for national leaders to meet people's expectations for either service standards or accountability. Devolution is essential to restore public confidence in both local and central government.

There are differences in detail between the parties' devolution places. Labour's address more of the key challenges, but the tone is more cautious. The white paper will show whether ambition is matched by breadth.

Some Conservative pledges are more ambitious, but their clarity raises new questions. How will central government drive improvement after abolishing the regulations that have been used for this purpose?

This is a persistent challenge in delivering devolution. Effective reforms in one area create new problems in others and if these new challenges are not resolved then individual plans will eventually unravel.

Devolution is a 'whole system' challenge. It is not like fixing a machine, where one can repair the wheels, take a break then come back and fix the engine. Reform is akin to restoring an eco-system. The connections between each part of the system are so dense that failure to address any single area will eventually cancel out progress in all other areas. We cannot weed half a garden, go on holiday and expect to return to weed the other half.

This is why judging whether the parties' words could become realities depends less on the quality of today's work in progress, white papers and policy reviews. More important are the omissions, as these are the major obstacles to reform. How willing are the parties to do what is necessary to overcome them?

Giving local government a bigger role will demand stronger and more visible political leadership. Labour is travelling in the right direction but its pace is cautious. Plans for elected police commissioners have the ambition that is needed, but risk fragmenting local accountability.

Cutting back on top-down targets is welcome but both parties need to explain what will drive local improvement once they have gone. Devolution from town hall to smaller communities is needed. But ministers cannot second-guess the best arrangements across thousands of communities. Nor will community groups thrive if they are simply cut loose from local government. Both parties need to explain how they will create an environment in which councils have the incentive both to devolve to neighbourhoods and engage with them.

Furthermore, devolution cuts across Whitehall's working methods, so sustainable reform requires new systems to ensure Whitehall can deliver its strategic role in these changed circumstances.

The funding regime is the most powerful influence on organisational behaviour. To be credible, both parties will need to describe a comprehensive reform that is consistent with their vision of devolution.

There is more than one way to answer these questions – but they must be answered. Today's system of governance cannot meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. In an increasingly complex society, local government is the arena in which a solution will be formed. Yet restoring the eco-system of English governance requires a 'whole system' solution.

Just as weeds return to a half-tended garden, so good ideas in isolation will fail.

So when we assess the relative merits of plans for devolution, we should worry less about the detail of specific proposals. The central question is whether the major parties' plans address the whole system, rather than its parts.

Dick Sorabji is head of policy & research at the New Local Government Network


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