From being steeped in the commentary about the government’s localism agenda – and even just looking back through old posts on this blog – there’s a growing sense of disillusionment at the gap between the Department of Commmunities and Local Government’s soaring rhetoric and the reality of the power being extended to local authorities and communities. Councils are given a power of general competence – but the Secretary of State retains a veto. Community groups can suggest ways in which services can be better run – but probably won’t get to make the improvements a reality. Organisations will have a bit more time to bid for buildings and land under the Community Right to Buy – but won’t have a right of first refusal or, necessarily, the money to bid.

This discrepancy between localist rhetoric and reality is most notable in planning, where it is feared that the new National Planning Policy Framework’s ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ will make it difficult for local authorities to take account of local concerns for fear of appeals, and that liberalisation of how changes of use are dealt with will make it impossible even to attach conditions to development to ensure it is of a high standard and either mitigates or pays for any negative externalities it causes. Neighbourhood planning, says Greg Clark, will allow communities to ‘wield real power‘ – but it’s clear that this only applies as long as that power is used to promote more development.

Though the Localism Bill is entering its final stages in its passage through Parliament, the battle for localism is far from over – my view is that we need to move away from the ‘NIMBY vs growth’ debate and talk about the bigger picture of shifting meaningful financial and political power to local areas, allowing the right incentive frameworks to be set to get development done in good time, to high standards and in sufficient volume to meet local needs. In this light it was heartening to see that the Government has accepted an amendment from the Core Cities Group to allow England’s major cities to take on the same powers as the Mayor of London in the future.

This is a great example of how localist policy is not antithetical to growth – the Core Cities Group quotes research suggesting that decentralisation will help them deliver a million more jobs over the next decade.

The amendment received an excellent reception when it was introduced at Report Stage in the House of Lords: all three parties backed it. Labour’s Lord Beecham went so far as to declare ‘This is the most localist part of the entire Bill, and the Minister and her colleagues deserve to be congratulated on that…. We have had an almost biblical experience tonight’ – though expressing doubts as to how far this would be embraced across government in reality and citing the perceived lack of response of departments to the ‘community budgets‘ project intended to give local authorities more flexibility over spending: ‘one has to wonder whether other departments will, in practice, fulfil the Government’s intentions…. If they are not prepared to co-operate and pool budgets in a joint way, will they seek to devolve functions to and through local government?’

Lord Beecham’s question strikes at the heart of the matter. Yet the concern of much of the discussions around the amendment have centred not on the need to make sure that decentralisation happens, but on the opposite: how can we make sure the cities are ‘ready’ for their new responsibilities? The Core Cities briefing on their amendment takes this concern seriously, reassuring risk-averse centralists that ‘the Secretary of State would have powers in primary legislation to be able to empower these Urban Economic Growth Areas as and when they saw fit, according to evidenced achievement. If areas did not meet the criteria, they would not be able to access powers’ and ‘We are suggesting a route to ‘earned autonomy’, with initial control still being held by Government and subject to guidance and competency tests set out by the Secretary of State. It would in a real sense be minister’s initiative and their decision’.

This is a deeply patronising idea. What has central government done lately that qualifies it to sit in judgement in this way? What is to stop the Government refusing to devolve power for political reasons – noting that Liverpool, hotbed of Militancy and rejecters of the Big Society, is one of the Core Cities? It is also inconsistent: did London have to demonstrate ‘competency’ before the Greater London Authority was established, or was it simply assumed because it was London? The ultimate arbiters of whether authorities can be trusted with such powers ought to be their electorate – not the Secretary of State. The inclusion of Parliamentary approval in the process adds a democratic veneer which, though to be welcomed, cannot disguise a power imbalance more fundamental even than that between the executive and the legislature in England and Wales – namely that between the central and the local:

I confirm that final decisions over whether to approve proposals to transfer a function to one of the core cities will rest with Parliament. Any order covering the transfer of functions to a permitted authority would be subject to a superaffirmative procedure. That would require that the order be laid in draft for 60 days, during which formal representations would be made. After this the order would have to be approved by a resolution of each House before it could come into being.

(Baroness Hanham)

Given the well-publicised opposition of this government to red tape, this seems somewhat ridiculous.

The political maneuvering behind this is evident: in suggesting the principle of ‘earned autonomy’ the Core Cities Group have clearly picked up on the reluctance of Government to devolve real power and are seeking to provide reassurance. This is still a great initiative and if this concession to risk-averse centralism helped get it through, then it made tactical sense for the Core Cities Group to suggest it. But given that they were suggesting an amendment to the ‘Localism Bill’, promoted by a government that has put decentralisation at the heart of its agenda, it’s a bit of a shame they had to.

I am speaking on localism on behalf of Living Streets at an event organised by Friends of the Earth the Liberal Democrat conference fringe on Monday 19th September – 6.15pm at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Birmingham.

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