As a cross party consensus slowly emerges on the merits of devolving greater powers to cities and regions, the findings of the first two evidence reviews from the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – on employment training and business advice – are notable as much for the gaps they highlight as for the conclusions they draw.

Read the rest at http://whatworksgrowth.org/blog/its-time-for-local-partnerships-to-get-serious-about-evaluation/#.U7hE2JRdUrV

David Cameron’s announcements on local authority and community incentives for permitting ‘fracking’ for shale gas in their local area have unsurprisingly divided opinion. Those in favour cite energy security, jobs and growth, while those against view the policy as a bribe to tempt struggling councils to gloss over serious environmental impacts. Beyond the actual fracking issue, however, examining these battle lines themselves tells you a fair bit about the state of public debate and decision making in this country – and the news isn’t great.

The principle that should be at the heart of this debate is about the necessity of weighing up all the costs and benefits in order to reach a rational decision. Clearly, this requires accurate evidence – in this case on subjects such as how much shale gas there may be in the UK, how much of it can be extracted, how cheap it is to extract, what are the local and global environmental consequences of extracting it, and what impact it would genuinely have on prices given the UK’s participation in European-wide and indeed global energy markets. But evidence alone is not enough: someone needs to weigh it up. Good policy requires institutions that have both the analytical capacity and the autonomy to process this evidence, interpret it in relation to the local context, use this to assess the benefits and costs of action and make a decision. 

The debate shows how far we are from this being the case. If you accept the broad principle that costs and benefits relating to intangible aspects of the natural world and society can be weighted and compared – which is a worthwhile and interesting debate in itself – there is nothing inherently wrong with a financial incentive for councils or communities; it simply becomes one of the benefits which need to be weighed against the costs. It’s also not particularly radical. Most European countries have a far more decentralised taxation system than ours: something like retention of business rates by the local authority would be hard to take seriously as an incentive in Germany. Meanwhile, the principle of paying landowners compensation for the negative externalities of development is by no means new.

By getting stuck on this point, though, the debate limits itself: one person’s despicable ‘bribe’ that will inevitably skew the debate is another person’s ‘not good enough‘ (LGA) or ‘crumbs from the Treasury table‘ which has no chance of nudging decisions in the right direction. This doesn’t particularly move us on. A much more fruitful argument, which sadly I’ve seen more ‘below the line’ than above it, is ‘why fracking – why not renewables?’ 

Arguably there are already subsidies for renewables – though they tend to accrue to those producing it rather than local authorities and communities – and a similar, siloed debate on community funds related to onshore wind in particular has been in play fairly recently. But leaving aside again the specifics of the energy debate, this is getting us closer to the heart of the matter. Why reward a particular action or output – in this case fracking – when what we really need to incentivise, as a society, is action of whatever kind to ensure that our energy needs are met? Why give councils increased leverage, and by extension greater decision-making responsibility, over one part of the energy mix and not others? Boringly but importantly, for example, one of the biggest things councils can do in the short term to ensure energy needs are met is probably energy demand reduction through behavioural change and physical improvements such as insulation. Again, this is nowhere in this debate, partly because it’s boring, and partly because the story is ‘councils bribed to allow fracking’ and not ‘how can councils best help ensure our energy needs are met?’ 

This idea can and should be taken further. The RSPB, for example, commented, ‘Rather than being rewarded for protecting the natural environment, councils are getting their bonuses for letting fracking take place’. Must it be either / or and one size fits all? If both are important national objectives, we should be aiming to translate this into setting out the parameters within which empowered councils and communities can weigh up competing priorities, make choices and deal with the consequences. Taking a simple example, given that reducing carbon emissions is a national priority, the use of a carbon pricing mechanism as part of the incentive mix would seem appropriate. There are significant technical challenges (some of which have already been worked through) to setting a carbon price, figuring out the right way to set that against the fracking ‘bribe’ in a way that is meaningful for local authorities, etc. but the real question is whether there is the political will to allow a meaningful local debate which will inevitably play itself out in different ways in different places. Similarly, there are technical challenges around designing a compensation system that works for individuals and communities – I have been considering recently whether online crowdsourcing type platforms might provide some inspiration by allowing people to interact to set a price – but the real question is whether there is the political will to contextualise a practice currently viewed as ‘bribery’ as being a necessary and respectable part of a rational, fair broader decision-making system.

MP Barbara Keeley, whose constituency has seen anti-fracking protests, raises the point that the proposal on business rates ‘muddies the water to give councils two contradictory roles. One is a protective role, to check companies have safeguards. On the other hand, you have a cash strapped authority that’s lost £100m off its budget, like ours, that gets offered this cash incentive in business rates. The public involved in this, who live near the site, how can they trust the local council will make the right decision on this?’

It absolutely makes sense to highlight this tension and the conflicts of interest to which it could lead. But there’s no future in pretending that we can retreat into a simpler world where our institutions don’t have to take on these kinds of contradictory roles and competing priorities: with the need to find savings continuing, councils are experiencing this every day, and communities need to understand the realities of it. Rather than seeking to remove the ‘bribe’ and retreat to a mythical golden age of simplicity, we should be considering whether our councils and civil society institutions have the freedom, capacity and incentives to deal with the complex reality.

Edit: found this very interesting post after writing mine – it goes into a lot more detail on the arguments around who the beneficiaries of incentives are, whether incentives work, etc. and will probably be a refreshing read after the highfalutin’ rant above

Back after a long hiatus, mostly involving stopping small people falling down steps.

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I’ve recently embarked on the Public Service Launchpad Scholarship programme, which aims to bring people together to work on solutions to public service problems. I believe I’ve identified a problem – or opportunity – and want to use this programme to help me think about solutions.

Would be interested in views and ideas (also working on boiling the below down to a couple of sentences in plain English…)

Seeking to engage communities in decision making around local public services is nothing new, but there are two big reasons why it is now more important than ever. The first and most obvious is budget cuts: with less money to go round it’s all the more important that people are engaged in setting out where their priorities lie. The second is demographic pressures – a high and increasing proportion of local public service budgets are being spent on a small proportion of the population in areas such as adult social care, leading to a situation which is increasingly unsustainable, not just financially but also in terms of people’s trust in public services and local politics.

In this context, engaging communities in shaping local public spending is crucial, yet current examples of such engagement are not bold enough to meet the challenge. Despite some genuinely innovative consultation methods, without a clear illustration of the trade offs at stake and a clear imperative to make a decision one way or another, communities tend to be resistant to all cuts or accept only cuts in those services which they do not access or do not understand.

These are reasons in themselves to improve engagement.  But the urgency, ironically, could be amplified by what happens next in local public services. In the longer term, central Government has a limited set of options to help local public agencies make ends meet. Essentially, they can remove or pare back local government’s statutory duties, find more grant money to plug the gap, or give local areas more autonomy to design, deliver and finance services in new ways. From this set of unpalatable options for Government, increasing local autonomy may well end up as the only viable one.

Government has in fact started to take some tentative steps towards increasing local autonomy. However, the steps taken so far only emphasise the importance of mature and genuine engagement of communities. Initiatives such as Whole Place Community Budgets, as pioneered by the Tri-borough in London and elsewhere, are increasingly moving public services towards early intervention approaches, investing up front to reduce later costs. Yet diverting current spending to programmes that will take several years to pay off, such as early years education and preventative public health, is a hard sell in hard times. City Deals and other aspects of the local growth agenda similarly support local authorities to invest in future prosperity. Whilst eonomic growth is a far easier sell politically, investment in economic development still risks conflicting with current spending on services: economic development is not a statutory service and far harder to explain than bin collections or primary school places. Without genuine public engagement in assessing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and making a decision, the ability of areas to find ambitious solutions to improving people’s lives will be restricted.

Meanwhile, and perhaps more straightforwardly, the kinds of governance arrangements increasingly expected of Local Enterprise Partnerships and city regions by Government – such as combined authorities – are strengthening local autonomy in one sense, but also potentially concentrating local power in fewer hands, with local authority leaders increasingly powerful at the expense of executive members and backbenchers. The  majority of local councillors risk being marginalised, continuing the trend of recent years and reducing communities’ routes to influence decision making.

Longer term, the prospect of more financial autonomy for local government – being pursued for example by the Core Cities and London – raises the stakes and introduces the possibility of a meaningful debate at local level on revenue raising and spending priorities. Yet we cannot take it for granted that public understanding of local public finances, and the trade offs that need to be made, will automatically improve in line with this trend towards more meaningful local choices.

A new approach is needed to ensuring public understanding of and engagement in local public spending decisions. This could reinvigorate the role of ward councillors, help councils maintain reputation and trust in times of austerity and increase public understanding of how local government works. By making clear the scale of the spending challenge in ways that make sense to communities, we could improve understanding of the fact that quality services have to be paid for, potentially encouraging the public support which has so far been largely lacking for innovative community-driven (or, to quote a phrase increasingly receding into nostalgia, ‘big society’) service delivery models.

I would like to collaborate with others on solutions in this area bringing together cost-benefit analysis, as carried out most prominently in this area by New Economy Manchester, and approaches such as participatory budgeting. This could be a commercial venture, open source tool or simply a suggested approach to put forward to local authorities and seek to pilot.

Drop me a line if you’re interested in discussing this!

I’ve been a governor at a local primary school for a few years now and have enjoyed it a lot, so I was pleased to see the latest campaign encouraging people to volunteer as governors – apparently there are 30,000 vacancies across the UK.

Education charity SGOSS has made a video showing how being a school governor can help people gain useful business skills, and also how they can use their professional skills to the benefit of their community. This is a big reason to be a governor for me. As well as learning more about how schools work in general I have gained more exposure to financial statements and accounting practice through sitting on the finance committee, which has been helpful in my first forays into trying to understand public finance more broadly and will be a good start if I set up a business as I hope to. At the same time I have drawn on my interests and previous experience to develop ways of engaging harder to reach parents in school life, help draft policies and fundraising letters, facilitate a SWOT exercise and contribute to the school travel plan, as well as meeting nice people who want to see good things happen in their local community.

People may not realise that you don’t have to be a parent with children at the school, or even a parent at all, to be a governor. Also you don’t have to know anything about schools – being able to ask the right questions seems to be much more useful than knowing any of the answers. If you’ve never thought about it, take a look!

I’m just on my way back from a training course at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies. Very interesting couple of days and good to have some space to think about the big picture.

One of the things we considered was the respective roles of participatory and representative democracy at local level and how they fit together. As previous posts show, I have long been of the opinion that participatory methods – including, at the basic level, consultation – need to have real financial bite if they are going to engage people in helping to make genuinely tough choices over where scarce resources should be expended. But if budgets are decided by the people, where does that leave the representative role of the councillor?

Discussions on the course, and the recent event I organised on participatory budgeting, got me thinking about a possible structure to help reconcile these different aspects of the local democratic process:

1) Neighbourhoods are established, composed of a number of wards which together form a recognisable area (Kingston upon Thames has four ‘neighbourhoods’, each containing 3-5 wards, which can be used as an exemplar).

2) The council’s cabinet or executive is restructured and broadened to include a councillor representing each neighbourhood alongside thematic portfolio holders, helping to bridge the gap between ‘community’ and ‘policy’ members.

3) An overarching, strategic set of objectives and a service delivery plan (similar to the Sustainable Community Strategies that underpinned Local Strategic Partnerships) is co-developed between the council and the community, with an engagement period of sufficient duration, using fun and innovative methods and underpinned by Member / officer working groups.

4) Within the plan, outcomes, functions, services and budgets are placed into two categories: those which need to remain centralised (for genuine statutory reasons, strategic infrastructure needs, economies of scale too large to pass up, etc.) and those which can be devolved to neighbourhood level.

5)  The council centrally produces a prospectus setting out the devolved budgets for each neighbourhood and a ‘menu’ of service offers with associated specifications and costs for each statutory and discretionary service which they see as deliverable at neighbourhood level.

6) Community assemblies are convened at neighbourhood level, chaired by ward councillors and supported by dedicated, cross-disciplinary officer teams. All residents, businesses, community groups and other stakeholders within a neighbourhood are invited to attend.

7) Through a participatory budgeting process, neighbourhood assemblies decide their priorities, allocate their budgets to areas of spend and set their approach to commissioning in each area, deciding whether to ‘buy in’ to the council’s service offer in a particular area, or to make their own arrangements.

Often, services will become proportionally less expensive if more neighbourhoods buy into them. However, neighbourhoods may decide that they can deliver the same thing more cheaply – incentivising ‘Big Society’ type solutions, as they would leave communities with more money to spend on other priorities. They could also decide that they want to address a problem in a different way (a crude example might be choosing to spend money on youth services, rather than graffiti cleanup). Or they could decide that a particular area wasn’t a priority at all, and choose to invest elsewhere.

8) Supported by officers, ward councillors help the assemblies to consider their options, using their knowledge and experience to point out things which attendees might not have considered, and to focus the ideas being generated into a proposed budget and service delivery / commissioning plan for the neighbourhood.

9) This plan is then presented to the Cabinet by the Cabinet member representing the neighbourhood. Cabinet members can go back to assemblies with suggestions (such as where a neighbourhood’s decision to ‘opt out’ of a council service would make it unviable to run throughout the council area as a whole) and assemblies must consider these, but are free to reject them.

10) Led by ward councillors and supported by officers, neighbourhoods get on with commissioning and delivery, convening assemblies if needed / demanded to review progress.

Beyond the usual arguments on the value of local decision-making, three major advantages of this arrangement strike me: innovation, money saving and reinvigorating representative democracy. By handing over budgets, neighbourhoods would be free to innovate – or, just as importantly, to adapt successful practice elsewhere. And the powerful incentive to save money, in order to have more to invest elsewhere, would throw up ideas that the council ‘establishment’ would find difficult to resist – though this system has considerable potential to help erode that ‘establishment’: by devolving power, but also by providing a route for progression for councillors whose interest is first and foremost in representing their communities.

There are also, however, a number of complexities that this summary glosses over, such as on inclusive decision making mechanisms and how to design a workable system for neighbourhood assemblies that results in a fair approximation of representing everyone – including those who can’t or won’t turn up to meetings. Participatory budgeting systems using two or more stages can provide an effective way of widening participation. To take a more difficult issue, however, one advantage of a centralised, stickily statutory system is that it provides a fairly effective safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, and this system would see some councils seek to hold onto central power to protect their vulnerable or voiceless residents. One way of offsetting this in the long term would be to build economic modelling into the budgeting process – probably at the central stage, before the neighbourhood budgeting began – to ensure that future savings from current investments, such as in preventative health measures, were accounted for. It’s easier to make the case for spending to alleviate worklessness, or rehabilitate criminals, when it’s going to save people money a little way down the line.

Beyond all that, of course, there is the overarching problem is that this is about process rather than people – my political geek equivalent of the fantasy football teams I used to spend ages drawing up, paying more attention to the geometric intricacies of the formation than to the players. I’m weird like that. But could something like this work? Or should we stick to the classic 3-4-0 approach – elect 3 councillors for 4 years and have zero control in between?

Monday 8th October at Kingston Library, Fairfield Road, 6.30 for 7pm to 9.30pm.  Just turn up on the night or go to http://kingstonbudget.eventbrite.com to book your free place. Print some flyers and spread the word: http://localismclub.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/peoplesbudget.pdf

Do you think you should have more of a say in how your taxes are spent locally? Kingston residents will get to explore how this could work in an interactive event on Monday 8th October, run by The People’s Budget.

The session is being run as part of the Think in Kingston festival of ideas, which this year has a theme of ‘money’. The People’s Budget, managed by the charity Church Action on Poverty, has run similar workshops around the country to introduce people to participatory budgeting – coming together to make decisions on how money is spent locally.

Famously, Porto Alegre in Brazil, where participatory budgeting was pioneered, sees local people make decisions on how to allocate over a fifth of the city’s total budget through neighbourhood, regional and city-wide meetings that can attract thousands of people. Closer to home and on a smaller scale, the Council’s recent ‘Your Money, Your Say’ project in Tolworth gave residents the chance to vote on which local community groups should receive a share of a £10,000 grant pot.

Alan Thornton, coordinator of The People’s Budget, said: ‘When times are tight it’s even more important that people have a say on local spending. I’m very much looking forward to hearing Kingston’s ideas.’

Cllr Vicki Harris of Tolworth and Hook Rise ward said: ‘This is a great way for ordinary residents to decide on how some of the Council’s money can be spent to benefit local people in their own area. It’s real democracy in action.’

The workshop is on Monday 8th October at Kingston Library, Fairfield Road, starting at 6.30 for 7pm and finishing at 9.30pm. All are welcome – just turn up on the night or go to http://kingstonbudget.eventbrite.com to book your free place.

[ends]

Notes to editors
For inquiries on the event please contact Majeed Neky at majeed@cantab.net or 07833 125 131

For inquiries about The People’s Budget please contact Alan Thornton at alant@church-poverty.org.uk or 07736 673 246, or visit www.thepeoplesbudget.org.uk
For more information about the Think in Kingston festival of ideas, which runs throughout October, visit www.thinkinkingston.org.uk

Localism Club and The People’s Budget present:

The People’s Budget: putting our mouth where our money is
Monday 8th October 2012, 6.30 for 7 until 9.30pm
Kingston Library, Fairfield Road, Kingston upon Thames KT1 2PS

Spread the word! Download printable flyers here: http://localismclub.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/peoplesbudget.pdf

The Think in Kingston festival of ideas runs throughout October 2012 and this year’s theme is money.

Now more than ever, when massive cuts are being made, ordinary people should be involved in deciding how our money should be spent. But can we, the public, really be trusted to work together and make tough, binding decisions about how our taxes are spent locally?

Join an expert from The People’s Budget campaign to explore how communities across the country are doing exactly that, using participatory budgeting to make decisions that count.

Refreshments provided. Donations appreciated on the night to help cover costs.

To help manage numbers please book a free place at http://kingstonbudget.eventbrite.com

www.thepeoplesbudget.org.uk
www.thinkinkingston.org.uk

The recent publication of the first crop of UK wellbeing data by the Office of National Statistics raises more questions than it answers. Just what is it about remote Scottish islands that is so conducive to wellbeing? Is this sort of thing really what Government should be doing, and does Government policy really influence happiness? And now that Government has done it… what use will it be?

Maybe the last question can help answer the other two. Leaving aside the difficulties of measuring something so subjective and, perhaps, transient, work needs to be done to bridge the gap between the availability of these data and the process of making policy. One role for the information may be to help inform trade-offs between decisions, and recent coverage of the UK’s continuing economic slump may provide a useful test ground.

One of the oddest scapegoats for poor growth figures has been extra bank holidays. Last year’s Royal Wedding saw billion-pound sums bandied about as the estimated cost to the economy of the additional day off. This year’s Diamond Jubilee, meanwhile, has been widely cited as one of the key factors in the 0.7% fall in GDP in quarter two of this year.

But do these figures actually have much of a bearing on anything genuinely important, or are they just a placeholder in the absence of more meaningful information? Unlike structural factors such as the skills gap, inadequate infrastructure, overregulation or whatever else you care to name or blame, loss of output because people happened to be away from work for an extra day that month has nothing to do with the underlying strength of the economy.

On the other hand, we know from experience that an extra day off makes people happier. The argument about happier people being more productive can hopefully be left waiting in the wings: if we can use these new data to pit the negative effects on gross domestic product of an extra day off against the positive effects on wellbeing, it might help convince the grey brigade of what we all know from experience – a bit of extra time off is a Good Thing.

We have fewer bank holidays than anywhere else in Europe. Getting this situation sorted out could be a suitably discrete, easily comprehensible and thoroughly worthwhile opportunity for the ‘happiness index’ to make its mark.

Last week England’s eight largest cities and the Government announced the details of the first wave of ‘city deals’: packages of powers, funding streams and financing mechanisms being devolved to city-regions. This has received relatively little mainstream publicity given that it is possibly the most exciting initiative, from the perspective of devolving power from the centre, that the Coalition has embarked on to date. But how does it fit alongside those elements of the Localism Act which did tend to hit the headlines, which placed more emphasis on local authorities ceding power to neighbourhoods and community groups?

The City Deals were originally linked closely to the elected mayors which most major English cities rejected in May. Though probably not a decisive factor in the ‘no’ votes across the country, a major criticism of the idea was that, while government rhetoric invoked London as an example of what a strong mayor could achieve, the mayoral arrangements on offer were restricted to single local authorities, rather than bringing together a city-region as in the capital – threatening unwelcome imbalances of power between neighbouring authorities and none of the much-vaunted strategic advantages of a mayoral setup. The majority of City Deals announced last week have at their heart the formation of a combined authority – a formal alliance of local authorities spanning a city-region. An archetypal example of this is Greater Manchester, the ambition and concrete achievements of which bode well for the others.

This aligns with the way that big cities tend to work in continental Europe. I’m no Europhile but there’s a reason why they take city-regions seriously: because it’s sensible and reflects the way that people live their lives in terms of travel and economic activity. As a means of enabling innovation, economic growth and cities to identify with and be proud of, it is a very good start, and the new powers and working practices to be trialled – prominently featuring the retention of more locally generated revenues and the combination of disparate national and local funding streams into single pots – are a tangible step in exactly the right direction.

We should be aware, though, that combined authorities are likely to move decision-making further away from communities. Meetings between elected members from each authority are likely to become a key decision-making forum, over which residents will exercise little influence, while the combined authority is likely to generate its own partnership framework and potentially bureaucracy which will further complicate the picture of who is responsible for what. The seductiveness of a return to a strong municipalist working practices should not be used to gloss over this gap.

Part of the disconnect may lie in the fact that the rhetoric and policy emphasis behind the City Deals is on economic growth, rather than on localism. A bridge between the two is essential sooner rather than later.

This post was first published on the Local Government Information Unit blog which is well worth bookmarking.

Readers au fait with Coalition localism rhetoric will know that we are the most centralised country in Europe – though many of us may fear that not enough is being done about it. As the implementation of many of the best publicised elements of the Localism Act starts to rumble along, less attention is being paid to the Local Government Finance Bill, rushed through the House of Commons amid anxieties from councils that the system is ‘fiendishly complex’ and in places increases, rather than relaxes, central control. LGiU have recently done some research into this.

Some smaller aspects of the language and narrative are also not hugely encouraging. The fact that Eric Pickles decided to activate the general power of competence by making a fuss over councils’ rights to hold prayers before meetings – important perhaps but hardly something that will help councils improve local people’s lives – and the fact that despite its introduction, the London Borough of Enfield still had to ask Pickles’s permission to introduce fixed penalty notices for spitting in the street are two small but disquieting indications of the level at which localism is being implemented. Meanwhile, though councils are fighting a defensive battle on many fronts, there is a keen appetite from councillors for real local power – not least for the powers needed to be able to take on a greater role in stimulating economic recovery.

Against this backdrop, the LGA and the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee have teamed up to spark a debate on the need for a new, formal constitutional settlement to set out the relationship between central and local government and guarantee councils’ legal and financial independence and autonomy to serve their citizens. A draft code has been produced and the Committee’s Chair, Graham Allen MP, is encouraging council groups and other organisations to hold discussions on the idea over the next few months and suggest changes to the draft and how it could work in practice.

There is much for councils to applaud in the document, including the recognition of councils as equal partners with central government, the establishment of an irrevocable legal status for councils (whose current existence and range of functions is entirely in the hands of central government) and the freedom to raise and spend revenue in any legal ways open to individuals or companies, subject to local people’s consent. The most immediate concern is how to take the debate forward at a high level.

The consultation on the document closes on October 5th. Eventually, the new settlement could potentially be taken forward through the Private Member’s Bill system; though the odds would be stacked against it, phrased right and with cross-party backbench and media support it would be difficult for the Government to ignore.

Whatever the eventual mechanism, though, a way forward will be found if public pressure is sufficient. The big question is: are the public bothered? The issue is subtler and broader than the usual fodder of organisations like 38 Degrees, which now orchestrate many of the UK’s most visible mass mobilisations of people behind causes. Denying power to the government to cut or privatise is one thing, which can be framed simplistically and emotively. Asking for more power for councils, who have been set up as the agents of many local cuts, is quite another. The nationalisation of power has also led to a nationalisation of dissent.

Discussion has not yet focused on how this public involvement could happen, with a fairly sector-specific and conventional approach to spreading the word thus far (including the involvement of the LGA, an insert in the Municipal Journal, and indeed this blog post). It further underlines the divide between local and central government that close working between a Parliamentary committee and the LGA is in itself breaking some new ground. But to move the issue forward, normal local people outside the circle of local government geekery will need to be added to the debate, in creative ways and with a message that is immediately relevant across a range of concerns.

Perhaps to make this happen, we will need to put our money where our mouths are. A major fact that this project is seeking to change is that while central government is able to look at revenue raising as well as making savings, these options are largely unavailable at the local level. The quality of the local political process suffers hugely as a result – most obviously in public dissatisfaction at council tax rises, constantly simmering in many areas and hugely aggravated by the lack of public awareness that council tax is not the source of the major part of most councils’ funding. At the same time, spending cuts are necessitating increasingly tough choices about priorities – but these choices are absent from all but the most innovative council consultation around cuts.

An approach that may have the potential to engage residents in getting to grips with these trade-offs – and with the government constraints that make the trade-offs so much worse – is participatory budgeting. In many cases, as reported by the Participatory Budgeting Unit, its use in the UK has been limited to the allocation of tokenistic sums of money for additional local projects. With such discretionary funds in short supply, it may seem that this is an experiment for the good times. But more comprehensive neighbourhood-based pooled budgets may be of more use now than ever, politically as well as practically. With the trade-offs between spending priorities becoming more difficult, it could be the ideal opportunity to find out how residents, local businesspeople and other stakeholders would balance a budget if a sensible range of revenue raising and spending powers were available to them – and engage a broader range of people in asking why, ludicrously, the central government straitjacket prevents this from happening in reality.

As ever, this is easier said than done. But despite the persistent gap between rhetoric and reality on localism, conditions for a shift of power to councils are still possibly better than they have been in quite a while. Councils and civil society organisations should jump on board – and do what they can to take the public with them.

Majeed Neky is an LGiU associate contributing to policy briefings for members and blogs at http://localismclub.wordpress.com

Read LGiU member briefings on Localism.

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