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Caroline Flint's speech to the New Local Government Network, 17th November 2010:
This conference comes at what is, unquestionably, a difficult time for local government.
Local councils up and down the country are facing major cuts of nearly 30% in their funding over the next four years – cuts much worse than any Whitehall department and cuts that are front-loaded so that they fall heaviest in the first year.
As a result, as local authorities set their budgets in the next five months, they will face the most difficult decisions for a generation.
But it also comes at a time when we have a new Government, who have made much of their localist credentials, and whose flagship bill on decentralisation and localism is due imminently.
This is, then, both a moment of danger and a moment of opportunity for local government.
The danger is that with huge cuts to be made, and in the rush to get budgets signed off by March 31st, and with each council department defending their own interests, the partnerships that have developed between local government and other organisations, which have the potential to provide better public services at less cost, will be lost.
The opportunity for local government, on the other hand, is to show that working with its partners, it can fundamentally transform its role.
And so today I want to briefly set out what localism means to me, why I support it, and why the partnerships between local government and other organisations are at the heart of my vision for a decentralised, localised society where power rests in the hands of the many, and not the few.
At the outset, though, let me say this: I am not in favour of localism for its own sake.
New structures and processes are never the end goal for devolving power.
And we should always caution against focusing too much on new forms and organisations, rather than on what devolution actually means for people.
Because people are interested in outcomes, not processes, and nothing fuels disillusionment more than a feeling that it doesn’t matter if you engage or not.
The case for greater decentralisation - for localism – is strongest when it is linked to the potential for local improvement that could not be achieved as well, or indeed at all, by central direction, and where it increases local accountability
Ours is a hugely diverse country.
Different areas have different needs and priorities.
What people are worried about here in Southwark may be very different to what people in my constituency in Doncaster are concerned about; and what works here might not necessarily work elsewhere.
Decisions should be taken, and Government should operate, as close to the people as possible.
Because those working on the ground, close to where the problems are happening, know where the solutions can be found.
Those are the people who know an area; who understand its fears and concerns; as well as its hopes and aspirations.
And they know their areas better than Whitehall ever can.
And beyond a reasonably set national minimum standard, local authorities should have the flexibility to reflect the priorities of the communities they serve, and to work with their partners to design and deliver services tailored to their own local needs.
And local people should be equipped with the information to know how well their services are performing, and the power to demand change when things aren’t up to scratch.
That’s what localism means to me.
That doesn’t mean there is no role for central government – because, ultimately, there is and always will be.
The landscape in local government is complex and varied – some authorities have more capacity, and will want to do more than others.
And when you’re dealing with sensitive areas like social services, especially for children and the elderly, there will always be a need for national minimum standards, and protections against serious service failure.
But that’s as much a challenge for local government as it is for central government: because in order to gain and maintain public and government support for local variation, individual authorities must be able to show that they are not falling behind certain acceptable standards.
Beyond that, local authorities should be allowed to innovate and experiment, and to shape the services that local people use.
And that’s good for central government too, because it frees them to think strategically, stopping them getting drawn into daily skirmishes on issues which, in many cases, they have no direct influence anyway.
And what this leads us to is a fundamental question about what we want from local government, and what its role is in a more decentralised society.
Is local government simply a provider of specific services?
Is the local council simply the organisation that sweeps the streets, collects the rubbish, and cares for those in need?
Is it just a delivery arm or an executive agency of central government?
Or should local government have a much wider, strategic role in working with its partners to shape the services its residents use and tackle the problems facing the local community?
I believe that local government should lead the way in delivering public services and working with its partners in areas like health care, policing, education, and employment and skills, to promote the interests of the communities they serve.
At the moment, even after the ‘un-ring fencing’ of a number of government grants, local authorities still have little or no say over most of the money that is spent in their area.
Schools, health, police and welfare budgets remain centrally directed.
Quangos and government department still report to Whitehall, rather than to the town halls.
And as a result, people don’t always feel that they have control over the public services and the things that happen where they live.
And one way we give people more control of the services they use, and make them more locally accountable, is through their elected representatives on the council.
But from what we’ve seen so far, there’s a real danger that the coalition’s approach to localism bypasses local government, rather than embracing it, and the partnerships and relationships which have been built up between local authorities, public sector organisations and community groups, will be lost.
Take their reorganisation of the NHS and the establishment of GP-led consortia.
In my opinion these plans are exactly the sort of unnecessary and expensive reorganisation that the NHS doesn’t need and which the Government promised they wouldn’t embark on.
But whatever your views on the proposals, councils are ideally placed to play a key role in commissioning services, especially in the areas where they have experience and expertise.
Yet we hear very little from the Government on the role that local councils will play.
Or look at their plans to establish directly-elected police commissioners.
Councils are already working with local police forces to combat crime and tackle anti-social behaviour.
And if the Government wants to improve the accountability of the police at a local level, why are they not thinking about how local councils could help to achieve this?
Last week the Government published its White Paper on welfare reform. But what role does it envisage for local councils in getting people back to work or providing skills and training?
And just this weekend, we heard that funding for schools would be centralised and the role of local councils would be sidelined.
Taken together, what they show is that the coalition seems to see local government as an obstacle to devolving power, rather than as a vehicle for decentralisation.
And despite the headlines about the dismantling of the inspection regime and the end of targets for local councils, personal instructions direct from Mr Pickles on how often councils should collect the bins, how much council tax they should charge, and his increasingly hysterical ban on council-funded newspapers show that Whitehall’s desire to intervene may be as great as ever.
That might not come as a surprise to you. Many of you will be used to parties promising to devolve power in opposition, but finding it difficult to do so when in Government.
And it’s true that when we came to power in 1997, after 18 long years in opposition, we had a lot we wanted to do, which did mean a steady stream of initiatives for local government.
Many of the individual measures had much to commend them.
But the scale and speed with which new initiatives and pilots and programmes were created often meant that those working in local government just felt swamped, and diverted their time and resources from actually delivering and improving services.
I think we were beginning to put that right, and it’s certainly where we were heading with Total Place, which was all about encouraging collaboration between organisations, avoiding overlap and duplication, and delivering better services at less cost.
And right at the heart of Total Place was a strategic role for local government, in partnership with other local organisations.
The same is true of the partnerships between local government and the voluntary sector.
Talk of the Big Society, and allowing local voluntary groups to flourish, is all well and good.
But, when many groups are reliant on local authority funding, the dramatic spending cuts the Government has imposed on town halls will seriously curtail the capacity of the charitable and not-for-profit sector.
And far from taking on more, as the Government imagines, they may actually be able to do rather less; ending the partnerships between local authorities and community groups that have proved so fruitful.
There are many challenges that cannot be met by central government alone.
And there are limits to what passing legislation or making a speech can deliver.
They cannot solve vandalism on an estate, raise standards in schools, or protect people at risk.
But there are few issues so difficult, so intractable that they cannot be solved by the innate common sense of local people.
The job of central government is to provide the investment, support and infrastructure for those people trying to solve these problems at a local level.
That’s what localism really means; that’s the test for this Government; and at its heart are those crucial partnerships between local authorities, the rest of the public sector, voluntary organisations and the communities they serve.