We are in an unprecedented time for our nation. The coming years will bring some of the biggest changes seen in a generation. The new Government faces a changed and changing world: the negotiations for Britain’s exit from the European Union; increasing economic challenges and opportunities with the rest of the world; calls for self-funding local services; the growing need for more community cohesion and an ageing population facing greater care and health needs.
Central government has a vital job to do in ensuring the whole nation benefits from our exit from the European Union. But it is often too distant from local communities to be able to respond to local needs, ambitions and concerns.
As the most trusted part of the public sector, at its best local government provides the strong and ambitious leadership that ensures the country has safe and thriving communities. Its cross-party nature also makes it best placed to prioritise people and communities, putting party politics aside.
Councils are at the heart of their local areas, improving residents’ lives on a daily basis. They play a unique leadership role in promoting social mobility, fairness and community cohesion. As place leaders, they are the only agency which can ensure everyone, wherever they live, has access to the opportunities they deserve and the public services they need.
Only local government really understands its residents and has the local democratic mandate to deliver on all of these services. All parts – combined authorities, counties, districts, London boroughs, mets and unitaries – are ambitious: only by working with us will the new Government be able to deal with all of the key issues that will matter most to the people of this country.
With protecting our residents at the forefront of minds for both local and national government, it is councils who can bring people together at a local level, providing the certainty they seek, delivering the core services they need and developing the thriving communities they want.
The new Government has a unique opportunity, once and for all to recognise that local and national can and must be equal partners that will deliver more than the sum of their parts.
At a point in our nation’s history when the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of national government will be huge, local government will take responsibility to ensure the nation remains fit and well, economically buoyant and continues to thrive. We will ensure that communities remain resilient and will support the Government’s ambitions for us to take our place in the world.
This is not possible without urgent reform. For the past quarter of a century successive UK governments have attempted, in one form or another, some devolution of political power and control. However, their approach has consistently been characterised by an over-reliance on the machinery of Whitehall.
Responsibility resting at most local level
The recent devolution agenda, while welcome, represents more policy continuity than dynamic change. We need to clearly define the role of central government and its departments in an age of devolved powers and reconsider what needs to be done by central government, rather than simply focusing on what powers can be handed to local government. It is clear what is essential to the state – defence, national security, trade negotiations and diplomacy – but all other responsibilities should rest at the most local levels, to promote the most efficient provision of services. Decentralisation, devolution and subsidiarity are all policy agendas that are grounded in localism, and are proliferating across the globe. Why not in the UK?
Further devolution and decentralisation is key to improving the wellbeing of communities. Local variation is an essential part of getting the best outcomes for local communities and we need to reset the old debate about postcode lotteries to focus on how we tailor local solutions to the needs of local communities.
Local areas, working in partnerships led by councils, must be allowed to press on with devolution but in ways that best suit local need and circumstance.
This power must be real and not mask a creeping centralisation, which actually removes powers from local areas, vesting them instead in Whitehall or unelected bodies.
The UK is one of the most centralised economies in the western world, and as a consequence has poor levels of public sector productivity. Giving local government more freedoms would improve this and help to boost economic growth.
Whilst devolution is already positively impacting on residents’ lives in some areas, the Government must keep up the momentum by providing the fiscal levers and flexibility to fundamentally change the way that local government is funded. Devolved powers must also come with devolved fiscal autonomy. Local areas cannot be passed a handfull of responsibilities without the appropriate funding and the ability to raise and keep more of the money they generate locally. Further devolution will not only allow councils, leading their communities and working with a range of partners to deliver the ever complex needs and aspirations of their local communities but to re-engage people and close the democratic deficit.
If local areas are given freedom and control over their own finances, and the responsibility for growing their local economies, they will be able to take on increasing and enhanced leadership roles for their place.
This will ensure there is a local workforce that is skilled for the jobs available to them, representative of the community it serves and with the right type of homes for them in the areas they want to live in.