Rules of engagement, by Peter Hetherington

26 Jun 08
Councils are confused. On the one hand, Hazel Blears promises a new white paper to empower them. On the other, she is busy devolving control away from them to local citizens. But there's no contradiction there, the minister tells Peter Hetherington

27 June 2008

Councils are confused. On the one hand, Hazel Blears promises a new white paper to empower them. On the other, she is busy devolving control away from them to local citizens. But there's no contradiction there, the minister tells Peter Hetherington

Five years ago, an aspiring junior minister raised eyebrows in town and county halls, irritating several senior colleagues in the process, by calling for a new era of community control over swathes of the public realm. In radical, Blairite overdrive, Hazel Blears, then at the Department of Health, proposed a Citizens' Participation Agency to reach out to 'a new cadre of engaged citizens to form the next generation of activists and leaders'.

Exactly where local government fitted into this brave new world of community control is difficult to gauge. Councils hardly figured in the Blears aim to 'broaden and deepen democratisation of society' – hence the understandable suspicion that her agenda aimed to bypass authorities in pursuit of a new vision of local democracy.

Now she's back with a vengeance. Far from being political history, the agenda is being reworked and woven into policy. An imminent white paper on local empowerment will, significantly, take its title from a 2003 Fabian Society booklet written by Blears. Communities in control expounded new forms of local involvement and, ultimately, neighbourhood control over a range of local public services and assets.

Addressing the Local Government Association's annual conference next week, Blears will not mince words in her personal crusade of community empowerment. It was nurtured in her home city of Salford, where she was a local councillor, deeply frustrated it seems by the old Labour top-down machine. 'With my own roots in local politics, grounded in the streets and estates of Salford, I'm a firm believer in devolution to the very local level,' she told parish councillors recently at their national conference.

At the LGA, she will adopt a tough and tender approach – ritually praising councils for improving their efficiency while, at the same time, challenging them to let go and devolve more power to communities. For many council leaders, this will doubtless feel a bit rich. As LGA chair Sir Simon Milton points out, ministerial rhetoric extolling the virtues of devolving more powers from the centre has dismally failed to match reality on the ground.

'There are things the government has done which should be given credit – pulling back from target-driven performance indicators, reducing ring-fencing [of specific grants] – but, on wider, deeper issues on devolution, I think we are still waiting,' he laments.

Blears will have none of it, accusing some councils of lacking in ambition and failing to use powers already at their disposal, such as exploiting the prudential borrowing regime and trading services and activities to raise extra cash. She is combative, if a touch patronising.

'I genuinely think local government has come a long way in terms of professionalism and ability to deliver, and we are at a bit of a moment in time when there is an opportunity for central government to genuinely devolve more powers to local government,' she insists in a wide-ranging interview with Public Finance.

But there is a caveat, revealing a hint of frustration. 'The challenge for local government is “are you up for this?” The corollary of greater devolution is clearer leadership, better delivery and the third bit – crucially important to me – a willingness on their part to devolve more power to communities. It's a deal, basically. If you get more power from us, are you prepared to share that power with the communities you serve?'

Community empowerment remains so central to the Blears agenda that local government leaders who originally found her engaging and inclusive now wonder how committed she is to strengthening town halls, rather than bypassing them with other forms of participation and democracy.

Why, for instance, produce another white paper, Communities in control (due to be published imminently) less than two years after Strong and prosperous communities (October, 2006), which was the prelude to yet another Local Government Act last year.

This was followed in 2007 with an 'action plan for community empowerment'. Yet only last month Blears told parish councillors that her department was preparing secondary, or 'add-on', legislation to the 2007 Act to give parishes – and the Act paved the way for parish councils in London for the first time – 'new flexibilities and powers'.

If the imminent white paper inevitably signals another Local Government Act, some question how it's possible to legislate for a philosophy to give people power over, say, park maintenance, street cleaning or community safety. The minister, of course, would argue that her 'empowerment' measures – forcing councils to respond to local petitions; creating 'participatory budgeting'; and making it easier to transfer assets such as redundant schools and council buildings from councils to communities – need some legislative clout.

'We have quite a good framework [but] quite a lot of new things to do,' she insists. 'I certainly think there are some new items for the white paper which will require legislation.'

Others are not so sure. 'These are laudable themes that any self-respecting council would sign up to, but there's not much you can legislate on to encourage that view,' maintains one key player close to the government. 'Hazel's real commitment, I have no doubt, is a sense of community power and people-based activity rather than local government and the worry is that her perception can be seen as undermining councils.'

The LGA's Milton is similarly sceptical over what he calls a 'micro' agenda. 'You can't argue with it – petitions, community “kitties”, empowerment, things of that kind – but if you can't stop your local post office, or your local GP surgery from closing, then actually citizens will get thoroughly disenchanted pretty quickly,' he complains.

Messages from the minister, ever bubbly and enthusiastic, can appear mixed. 'This is a time of real opportunity for local government to be a really important strategic player across local public services – you know, health, policing, all the things that matter to local people,' she says.

'And hopefully they are going to step up to the plate and work on that. Because again, with power comes responsibility, doesn't it?' Ouch!

In truth, when the forthcoming Local Government Bill is published, one overriding aim will be to add legislative flesh to last year's review of regional structures – devolving some economic powers from regional development agencies to new city-region partnerships on the one hand, while handing strategic housing and planning functions from non-elected regional assemblies to RDAs on the other.

Another aim will be to create the new housing regulator, the Tenants Services Authority, formerly known as 'Oftenant'. It will take over the social housing responsibilities of the Housing Corporation after it merges with English Partnerships to become the Homes and Communities Agency later this year. 'I suspect that, in reality, the empowerment agenda, and the philosophy of the white paper, will not figure very highly,' says one insider.

Central to Blears' policy framework, on another level, is bringing other departments, such as Health and the Home Office, on board under a big localist tent, in which councils will not necessarily be the main players. But do these departments share her devolutionary sentiments?

With the Home Office's green (or consultative) paper on policing imminent, Milton, for one, thinks Blears has lost the argument for councils to be given a more powerful role in policing matters. So has she?

'Not at all,' she responds. 'Obviously, I cannot tell you what's in the police green paper, but I can say that [Home Secretary] Jacqui Smith and I have worked incredibly closely together on this agenda to give local people more say but also to ensure that neighbourhood policing is properly integrated with the vital services of local government – so I think you'll see a much more joined-up story than has previously been the case.'

So how is this agenda playing out? Blears laughs heartily. 'Well, you're going to have to wait and see… but I think it's really important, as does Jacqui, that there is a real connection with all the work we've done together, for example, on Local Area Agreements. You've now got the police performance regime aligned with local government indicators, which is a first, so in that context it will hardly be the case that we're about to break that up, having just agreed it.'

But on the health front, although councils have made great progress working with primary care trusts, making joint appointments and jointly commissioning progress is far from clear.

But the minister maintains: 'Many of the health performance measures which are in the [Department of Health] operating framework are now aligned again with the local indicator sets in LAAs. Many of the top issues that local authorities have chosen are health matters – social care, smoking, alcohol – and that is an indication of joining up with health and we are working very hard to see if we can do more.'

This is where the Blears agenda becomes muddier. Insiders point to a letter from the minister to both Smith and Health Secretary Alan Johnson earlier this year, in which she proposed direct elections to reshaped police authorities and to NHS primary care trusts.

This could mean, say, police authorities/boards being restructured with a third of the membership directly elected, a third being drawn from local councils and another third appointed by the home secretary.

'It's pretty difficult to reconcile this with the role of local councils,' notes one insider, who said there had been 'positive dialogue' between Smith and Blears on this point. 'But I gather Alan Johnson gave the idea short shrift,' he adds.

All this is taking place against the background of a resurgent LGA, which is seizing the initiative on some of the major issues of the day as it moves to occupy the higher policy ground, once the preserve of Whitehall.

It is challenging the government with hard evidence in areas from the impact of migration on under-funded local services, to climate change – urging ministers to force energy companies to insulate homes, for instance. It is also looking at unemployment, with calls for a devolved welfare and skills system to ease an estimated 7 million 'economically inactive' people into work.

Recent research by the LGA shows that, in the public mind, councils – and councillors – are on the front line when it comes to sorting out local grievances. In a survey, 48% of respondents said councillors were the first port of call for people with problems, while only 29% said they would look to MPs for help.

Love councils or loathe them – and, as a former councillor and local authority lawyer, Hazel Blears might have verged towards the former – most ministers have realised that you can't ignore town and county halls. But in the twilight of New Labour, with Tories now the dominant party of local government, is there a real appetite for devolution to councils? Does that explain the Blears' agenda for micro-localism below the town hall, bypassing councillors where possible? Roll on the Citizens' Participation Agency, perhaps.

Peter Hetherington writes on community affairs and regeneration


Did you enjoy this article?