David Cameron recently joined the queue of politicians eager to explain their vision of localism. Most of those addressing the topic have claimed that engaging people in decisions about the delivery of public services improves their quality.
The collapse in public confidence of politicians of all parties has added an element of scrutiny to the debate. David Milliband has already broadened the argument from better public services to better communities a couple of years ago when he said: ‘ My argument is simple. Give people power, enable them to set out clear expectations about what is expected by their fellow residents and service providers and you get not only a shared sense of responsibility for improving communities, but also a renewed civic pride’.
The debate about how many of the services that we rely on can be best delivered locally has ebbed and flowed throughout the last century. A hundred years ago, about half of public expenditure was administered locally. Post war optimism in both 1919 and 1945 encouraged the pursuit of welfare programmes, delivered universally and equally. This was a challenge that was beyond the capacity of the voluntary organisation. It required the active involvement of central government to take decisions on what services were to be provided, how they were to be managed and to pay the bills through general taxation.
From 1979, this overarching role of the state was challenged through the process of transferring the delivery of many services to the private sector. But while the intention to slim down central government, this didn’t lead to extending the freedom to make decisions to local government. Central government distrusted local councillors and saw many of them, particularly those elected from our major cities, as likely to obstruct their programme of reform. It was only towards the end of the century that politicians of all three major parties began to talk openly about the failures of over reliance on the state or the market. Localism, or ‘devolution to the doorstep’ as it was described, began to be regarded as a central theme in a programme of social reform.
It’s important to recognise that what politicians describe as localism is just one part of a wider programme of social reform. While the day to day political point scoring often obscures the picture, there is broad agreement across much of the political spectrum on three objectives. These are first to try to reduce inequality of opportunities and outcomes, second to encourage citizens to play a more active part in managing their own affairs and third to improve the quality of public services by making them more responsive to local needs.
The wider agenda includes a belief that increasing the opportunity for choosing your supplier of public services will increase their quality and efficiency. It embraces the principle of competition between suppliers as a means of breaking the old municipal monopolies. It explores whether there are benefits in putting decisions about spending priorities directly into the hands of the ‘customers’, through, for example, opening up the budget priorities to more general discussion. It encourages advocacy and challenge by accepting that customers recognise poor performance when they encounter it and are entitled to make a fuss. And, in case this spread of responsibility goes too far, its underpinned by a set of baseline national standards and inspection regimes that ensure every citizen should enjoy at least a basic level of quality.
These objectives are still controversial. For example, it’s argued that without information and advice for poorer communities about what’s on offer, choice can be hijacked by those able to work the system. Others question whether the threat of competition is a sufficiently powerful force for change, noting that collusion and price fixing still exist in some areas of the private sector. Putting the spending power in the hands of individuals to commission their own services could be complicated and again might principally benefit the articulate and informed. Those with the loudest voices may be those that are heard.
And localism itself faces a very specific objection. It’s that by extending choice, by using competition to drive up standards and by entrusting local communities to play a more active part in managing their own affairs, a situation will arise that leads to indefensible differences in what public services are provided across the country. Some neighbourhoods will manage their affairs better than others. And some residents will find that localism will lead to choices about priorities which mean that some people will enjoy services that others in neighbouring areas will not. And vice versa, leading to the emotional argument that local choices lead to a ‘postcode lottery’.
Postcode lottery is a journalist’s phrase that by its very nature implies injustice. Who could support a lottery in the provision of public services? But if more decisions about priorities are to be taken at a lower level, closer to the neighbourhood at which residents can participate more directly in articulating what’s needed, then differences will inevitably arise.
The question may not be that these differences exist, but to what extent they are acceptable.
In December 2005, in his inquiry into local government, Michael Lyons illuminated the issues arising from the postcode lottery and provided a blueprint for action in making localism work and in recognising its limitations. The closer people get to what they might call the ‘life and death’ issues, the more they want certainty and a national standard. Where environmental issues, leisure services, planning issues, housing, transport and social services are concerned, people are much more confident in looking for local outcomes.
Both Gordon Brown and David Milliband say their vision is that of giving people the power to act. One word that has been influential in the localism debate is ‘bedrock’. If the intention of central government is that some decision making is to be made at a more local level and if power is increasingly to be shared, the voluntary and community groups that make up the ‘not for profit’ sector will have significant pressures and responsibilities placed upon them. Are they strong enough to cope? Are they able to provide the essential bedrock on which the whole localism adventure depends? Or will they buckle under this pressure, allowing future governments at both central and local level to write them off as an experiment that was tried and failed?
There are those who would argue that power cannot be given or conferred as a privilege, but has to be taken. In this reading of the localism agenda, the not for profit sector must develop sufficient assets to be able to sustain their organisations over time, to avoid complete reliance on funding from central or local government and to play a part, as of right, in the determination of local priorities through the decision making structures such as local strategic partnerships and local area agreements.
Some third sector organisations have become more suspicious of this process. The welcome that many originally gave to single pot funding has soured as local authorities have seized control of it. Devolving power to local authorities has proved a dubious advantage. Some specific funding streams, such as that for community empowerment networks, have been subsumed into the single pot funding and some local authorities have then discontinued their supporting grants.
So the message to the third sector seems clear. There is an expectation that it can deliver the innovation, flexibility and enthusiasm that the local agenda demands. But to do so successfully requires a concentration on those issues that public opinion highlights as being unsuitable for a local approach and organisations that have the assets and the power to build partnerships that are sustainable and influential.
The third sector finds itself increasingly at the beck and call of both commissioners and local authorities, many of whom are keen to control the budgets while being less than willing to take the further step of engaging fairly with the voluntary and community organisations that now depend upon them. Opinion within the third sector is beginning to argue that effective localism needs some parallel funding streams direct from central government. The majority of devolved funding will go to local authorities but the third sector increasingly recognises the need for protection through the continuation of significant budgets flowing directly to it from central government.
Of those issues highlighted by Michael Lyons as being suitable for local treatment, social housing stands out as the service that is both regarded as best delivered locally and where the establishment of housing associations, independent of both central and local government, provide a secure asset base for the development of activities linking housing to environmental issues, local planning and neighbourhood regeneration.
In 2006, the Housing Associations Charitable Trust (Hact) published it’s report, An opportunity waiting to happen – housing associations as community anchors. Hact has now published the sequel, Supporting the first steps – from capacity to community, which explores the extent to which housing associations are involved in neighbourhood action partnerships with a range of voluntary and community organisations. Both reports highlight concerns over third sector stability and sustainability, the need for ‘bedrock’, which could be addressed by the significant asset base that housing associations have built up over the past 40 years.
DCLG recently awarded Hact £500,000 over three years from the Community Empowerment Fund to explore the idea of neighbourhood bedrocks further.
Community Anchors are described as organisations that are based in a building that is either owned or managed by the community. The asset can help them to generate some of their income themselves and to respond directly to local needs.
A role for housing associations as neighbourhood enablers in support of these ‘community anchors’ has become clearer recently. Connected with and supporting development trusts and other neighbourhood based groups, housing associations have an opportunity to help fashion important partnerships that will have the strength and power to build capacity in the sector. They can enhance the work of these resident-led community anchor organisations that can make localism a reality. Housing, and housing associations, can become the powerhouses of localism.
Chris Wadhams is a neighbourhood renewal consultant. His report, supporting the first steps can be downloaded at www.hact.org.uk