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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: https://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.
Notes to editors
For inquiries on the event please contact Majeed Neky at email@example.com or 07833 125 131
For inquiries about The People’s Budget please contact Alan Thornton at firstname.lastname@example.org 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: https://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
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 https://localismclub.wordpress.com
I’ll be on the panel for an online discussion on localism tomorrow (Weds 8th Feb) organised by the Guardian’s Local Government Network. It’s from 12-2pm and you can take part here. Was pleased to be asked and judging by previous online discussions they’ve held, it should throw up some food for thought – though I’m slightly nervous about keeping up after reading this today!
Update: roundup article is up here.
This post was first published at The Multicultural Politic.
As the Coalition is fond of saying, the UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Lucky then, you’d think, that the Coalition inherited an unusual law with the potential to help make localism a reality. But the story of the Sustainable Communities Act so far is a reminder of how reluctant successive governments have been to devolve genuine power to local areas.
In theory the Sustainable Communities Act (SCA) enables communities, through councils, to demand new local powers to promote social, economic or environmental wellbeing – a deliberately broad definition. Proposals are shortlisted by the Local Government Association and the Government must either grant councils the powers requested or justify, to Parliament, why they won’t.
As a Private Member’s Bill, the SCA had to struggle for Parliamentary time despite considerable cross-party support – a huge flaw in a system which, as shown again by the recent ‘talking out’ of the Daylight Saving Bill, still needs radical reform. Unusually, and impressively, the SCA got through in 2007. 100 council areas opted in, submitting proposals covering everything from speed limits and renewable energy to planning regulations and business rates.
Since then, however, delay and frustration have dominated. Three years after the Act was passed, there had still been no Government response to the first round of proposals. The Sustainable Communities Amendment Bill was passed in 2010, aiming to tighten up the process. Campaigners are still not satisfied: important details were left to later regulations, which are now coming under scrutiny.
More broadly, the SCA’s relationship with the current Government’s localist narrative deserves examination. On the surface the Coalition has embraced the SCA, responding promptly to the first round of proposals it inherited and giving the green light to several. At the same time, it announced that communities would no longer have to wait for the next ’round’ to submit proposals, but could do so at any time through a new ‘barrier busting‘ website.
Welcome as the ‘barrier busting’ initiative is, and though it does not claim to replace the SCA, it illustrates the limitations of the Government’s approach to localism. The idea of a broad conversation on the powers local government needs to promote citizens’ wellbeing has given way to a narrow focus on deregulation. The political framing is as significant as the practical impact, with standard Conservative scapegoats such as health and safety and ‘red tape’ cited as examples of barriers ‘holding communities back’. One of the few Barrier Busting cases substantially taken up by Government is that of a community group apparently prevented by a council from running a volunteer School Crossing Patrol service, on the grounds that they aren’t insured.
Undoubtedly some councils have a risk-averse culture that needs addressing. But by focusing on points like this – or on ridiculous crusades such as Eric Pickles’s rantings about bin collections, the Government is skirting round the huge elephant in the room – local authorities’ lack of financial freedom. Such freedom is sorely needed, both to allow councils to meet local needs by raising revenue to spend on local services, and to give councils the levers to incentivise projects and behaviours, such as travelling sustainably or developing affordable housing, that can help an area improve.
Those who pushed the SCA through fully recognised the importance of financial control in determining where power lies. One of the Act’s most radical provisions is to ‘open the books’ so that communities can see a breakdown of all public money being spent in their area and propose that particular spending by any Governmental agency or QUANGO be devolved to the local authority. However, MPs have expressed concerns that the provisions have been watered down by subsequent regulation. The Coalition, creditably, is running ‘community budget‘ pilot schemes to pool funding from different agencies within local areas. But the idea that communities should be able to know exactly what is being spent, by whom, and put forward proposals to bring that money under democratic control and try to spend it better, seems to have disappeared.
Even more radically, and even more at odds with the current system, the Act also allows councils to propose new powers to raise funding. Some of these have been agreed by the Government; for example, councils will now be able to keep business rate money raised from new renewable energy schemes. That right may seem self-evident to those unaware of the current role of councils as a mere collection agency for business rates, collecting the centrally set tax and passing the proceeds to central government for redistribution. With much fanfare, the Government has set out plans to allow local authorities to retain business rates – giving them a direct financial incentive to promote local business growth – through the Local Government Finance Bill currently going through. Again, however, this is shaping up to be a disappointment, continuing the irony of the Localism Act, which saw central Government take on 142 new powers. A typical view from a group of (London) councils, much quoted in the House of Commons, is that the proposed new system is ‘fiendishly complex’, with incentives for growth undermined by placing too much ‘under direct Ministerial control’ and particular concerns, shared by poorer areas, over the Secretary of State’s power to vary the ‘central share’ of money taken by Government, without clarity over how this will be returned to the local level. It’s a far cry from the vision of the Sustainable Communities Act – and, to be fair, a far cry from a more distinctively Liberal vision for ‘real localism’.
The Coalition declares that it does not believe in regulating how councils should behave: it is for local people to hold them to account. Inconsistently though this principle has been applied, it broadly makes sense. But this must not be used to obscure the desperate need for more stringent regulation of government to ensure it decentralises power. Local Works members have written to the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, to address some of the issues with the regulations attached to the SCA, and are urging people to write to their MP in support. Given the consistent cross-party enthusiasm for the idea, progress may well be made. But as this intriguing episode in the recent history of English democracy reminds us, progress in getting governments to give up real power tends to be slow. When it comes to localism, warm words are ten a penny: it takes a brave government to put its money where its mouth is.
Answer: when Michael Gove is telling free schools to teach the importance of marriage and avoid ‘inappropriate teaching materials’ or they won’t get funding.
Previously on this blog I have explored the way in which the rhetoric around free schools and academies set up local authority oversight as a ‘straw man’ of red tape to be demolished by the heroic Conservatives, while doing nothing to address the effect of direct central government diktat in stifling creativity, creating bureaucracy and instilling anxiety in educators. Today’s revelations show how this has been taken a stage further. Having allowed schools to opt out of the ‘oppression’ of having their funding allocated by their local authority, Gove is now making them jump through ideologically loaded hoops in order to collect their money from the Department of Education, such as by stipulating that children should be ‘protected from inappropriate teaching materials and learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children’ in the model funding agreements for academies and free schools.
Aside from the debate about the specifics of this, it is a complete contradiction of Gove’s previous arguments on free schools and academies. In a speech at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank in June, he says ‘We want a school system in which teachers have more power and in which they are more accountable to parents – not politicians’. He quotes a recent OECD survey which concluded that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better’ – just one of fifteen uses of ‘autonomy’ or ‘autonomous’ in the speech. He even emphasises, without irony, the safeguards against prospective school providers ‘whose ideology runs counter to the UK’s democratic values’ – it’ll be interesting to see what happens if a free school democratically decides that it actually wants to teach children to explore issues of relationships and sexuality, rather than propagandising.
A Lib Dem vision of educational decentralisation could look quite different. In September Nick Clegg placed on record several caveats for his support for free schools. Lib Dems at Conference went further, passing a motion reasserting the importance of local authority involvement and oversight. Meanwhile, the wrangling between Lib Dems and Conservatives in Government over local government finance made me proud to remain a Lib Dem. The ability for local authorities to take control over their own finances and raise additional revenues from, for example, taxes on pollution might well result in additional resources being allocated to one of the most visible and important front-line services that local authorities provide – schools. It’s interesting to note as well that the Lib Dems don’t have a minister with a say over secondary schools, with Sarah Teather having been given the broader children and families brief.
I will be writing to my Lib Dem MP to ask whether there is any hope of putting Gove back in his box.