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Always a day away | Devolution Week II

Always a day away | Devolution Week II

🕔12.Mar 2014

In the second part of a special feature for the Chamberlain Files, Paul Dale turns to the Labour Party to see what key figures are saying about localism. He is left wondering how many of the ideas would be put into practice not least with a civil service known to have a centralist culture of contempt for local decision making.

The most recent contributions to the localism debate come from Labour Party heavyweights in a series of lectures and pamphlets. In each case, the message is the same but the detail as to exactly how a Labour government would go about devolving power is as yet missing.

Ed Miliband, giving the 2014 Hugo Young Lecture, called for a new culture in public services, handily pitched somewhere between left and right wing extremes. This, he said, would be: “Not old-style, top-down central control, with users as passive recipients of services. Nor a market-based individualism which says we can simply transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector.

“The time in which we live and the challenges we face demand that we should always be seeking instead to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. This commitment to people powered public services will be at the heart of the next Labour government.”

Mr Miliband’s comments focused on empowering the public by making information more readily available. He added that decisions about running public institutions ought to be taken jointly by users and public servants.

He did not stray into the more contentious territory of elected mayors or regional government.

Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary, had a go at defining the new localism in a forward to a Smith Institute pamphlet ‘Labour and Localism: perspectives on a new English Deal’.

Mr Benn noted that public services are “being driven to breaking point” by spending cuts, leaving councils struggling to keep services going and meet soaring demand for social services. The current system has reached the limit of its capacity and must be changed, he reasoned.

He continued: “Money and the power that goes with it needs to be moved out of Whitehall and down to communities where it can be used to best effect by supporting local collaboration between public bodies, rather that perpetuating duplication and overlap.

“This is unfinished business, and while there isn’t public appetite for another tier of elected politicians, there is a justified sense that too much power is hoarded in Whitehall.

“That’s why we need a fundamental shift from the centre to the local – communities, towns, cities and counties – which gives more power to people and to the elected politicians we already have. It’s what I call the New English Deal.”

A fundamental shift from the centre to the local? It sounds impressive and radical. But what, exactly, is the New English Deal? Mr Benn didn’t get around to explaining.

John Cruddas, Labour’s policy chief, spoke about devolution in a speech to the New Local Government Network. He didn’t want to talk about localism. He wanted to talk about power. In fact, the word ‘power’ cropped up more than 20 times in his speech.

Cruddas picked up on the theme that most people are fed up with politicians and feel “powerless to make their voices heard”.

He said: “Labour’s policy review is about giving power to people to give them more control over their lives. Our task is to build a One Nation political project that helps people to help themselves and transforms how the country is run.”

There was a head nod to past mistakes. “Confronted by the revolution of liberal market economics in the 1980s we sometimes just defended institutions and ideas that were offering diminishing returns. We spoke as egalitarians and reformers but we had become institutional conservatives.”

Mr Cruddas promised that Labour would “redesign the relationship between central and local government to spread power out to our cities and regions”.

He went further: “We will devolve economic power to innovative cities and regions. We will devolve power to help local people help themselves and shape their services in response to their specific needs.”

Quite how this is to be done, Mr Cruddas didn’t say.

He did, though, at the end of his speech, tread on difficult ground for a Labour party that traditionally has believed the state is best situated to provide welfare, education, health and any other public service you care to mention.

Mr Cruddas spoke about the “power of people’s relationships and the networks they create to strengthen and build upon the human capacity for resilience, love, care,  and good neighbourliness”.

He continued: “Our welfare state cannot protect us from the new social evils such as loneliness and the loss of community. It is failing to address the rising levels of mental illness, and it is not able to solve the problem of social exclusion…..the failed experiments of too much state and too much market mean we can only transform public services if individual citizens and communities have far greater voice in decisions that affect them.”

We are entitled to ask, then, whether this is Labour’s version of David Cameron’s Big Society?

It cannot be a coincidence that both Mr Miliband and Mr Cruddas mentioned in their speeches Michael Young, the author of Labour’s 1945 election manifesto. After being at the birth of the country’s biggest nationalisation programme, Mr Young turned his back on state control and centralism by publishing a book called Small Man: Big World which argued that the large institutions of modern society tend to ignore the interests of ordinary people, who suffer collectively as a result.”

Young’s book suggested that Labour should embrace an “active democracy and the radical devolution of power to people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces”.

Laura Wilkes, head of policy and research at the New Local Government Network, is in no doubt that the localism agenda will cause friction in the Labour Party.

In an article in Labour List, she argued: “Labour needs to set out how the party intends to deal with the split between centralists and localists. There are still far too many people in the party that believe Whitehall knows best, and find the concept of local determination incredibly difficult to reconcile.

“If we give councils, and in turn their communities, powers to take decisions for their own areas, including spending decisions, you won’t be surprised to hear that people will make different decisions.

“This could result in different levels of service provision across different areas, and people choosing to do things that the centre doesn’t agree with. Is Labour willing to accept post code choice?”

There was an early indication in Birmingham of friction between Labour centralists and localists when Sir Albert Bore decided in 2012 to bestow wide-ranging powers and large budgets on 10 District Committees. Traditionalists were aghast at the prospect of a Labour council leader handing power to Tory-controlled Sutton Coldfield and Edgbaston and Liberal Democrat controlled Yardley.

Sir Albert took care, though, to develop a moderation process whereby he can make sure spending decisions taken by district committees comply with overall council policy. You might call this devolution-lite.

One thing that Mr Miliband, Mr Cruddas and the other devolutionists don’t explain is how a decentralisation programme would be finessed past a civil service whose default position is Whitehall-based government.

Centralised government really began to take off in this country at the start of the First World War, and control by central government naturally strengthened during the Second World War and afterwards on the grounds that a command economy was required to oversee the war effort and subsequent recovery.

The role of local government was further weakened during the 1970s and 1980s as oil crises and soaring inflation left central government panicking to “do something” about rocketing household rates and business rates. Gradually, the ability of councils to raise funding themselves through taxes was trimmed, leaving central government firmly in control of the purse strings.

As Chris Game persuasively argued in a recent Chamberlain Files article, the civil service has a “centralist culture of contempt” for local government, and by implication local decision making. And what the Sir Humphreys’ of this world want, they generally get.

It is, as Chris reminded us, quite extraordinary to think back about all of the decentralisation promises made by parties in opposition, or even those in government, and then consider just what became of the bold visions?

I offer just one example. Who remembers a report by former Birmingham city council chief executive Sir Michael Lyons which made the case for a radical shift of government departments from London to big cities such as Birmingham? This, Lyons reasoned, would create employment and help stimulate regional economies.

In his report in 2003, drawn up for former Chancellor Gordon Brown, Sir Michael proposed transferring 20,000 government employees out of London and in to the regions.

Sir Michael commented: “I don’t anticipate a problem in terms of relocating people who don’t want to move. Although ministers want to move quickly, we’re focusing on a longer timeframe and it’s the jobs of the future we’ll be concentrating on.”

Sir Michael’s recommendation was warmly welcomed by Mr Brown, and then, apart from a handful of very small civil service transfers, it was completely forgotten.

The future for decentralisation, it seems, is always a day away.

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