The Tory-led government (yes, I am using Ed’s new phrase from now on) is all about localism. Localism is very much its thing, we are repeatedly told. But does the reality live up to the rhetoric? It won’t surprise you if you have followed politics for the past few months to discover that it doesn’t. And more worrying, where localism is being given a genuine chance, it’s as a cover for “chaos” in the delivery of public services.
First, let’s look at two flagship policies which are being touted as a move to a more local way of doing things. Education is an obvious example. Michael Gove wants local parents, charity or business groups to set up schools in their local area to offer schooling appropriate to the local children. These free schools are being driven by local demand, not managed from Westminster, we are told. They will have the freedom to teach what they like and employ who they like. Except. Except the decision on whether a school gets the go-ahead is entirely down to Gove himself. He is also solely and personally responsible for ordaining academy status on existing schools and can even force schools to become academies, regardless of whether they want to or not.
And while he talks about freeing the curriculum, he has decided which subjects actually count. So a school which wants to offer music, RE, sport or other subjects which fall outside of his arbitrary “English Baccalaureate” won’t be recognised in league tables. This is centrally applied pressure on what gets taught in schools and a million miles away from the localism agenda.
In education, the bodies which were responsible for ensuring local areas get proper school provision, the Local Education Authorities, are effectively being scrapped and decision-making is moving to Westminster. It’s clear that Mr Gove, while talking the talk on localism, is actively sprinting in the opposite direction when it come to genuinely localising services.
The same is true of enterprise and development. In England, the government is scrapping the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), which were responsible for investing and supporting economic development in the English regions. They are being replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which are supposed to be more local, more accountable and more effective because they are focused on smaller areas and run through existing local authorities. Except. Except the funding for the LEPs, which, let’s face it, is the important bit, isn’t local at all. The Regional Growth Fund (RGF) is a centrally-managed pot of cash which is doled out on the say so of ministers. In fact, it’s worth quoting directly from the BIS web site here as to who makes the decisions:
“Final decisions regarding support and prioritisation will be taken by a ministerial group chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretaries of State for: Business Innovation and Skills; Communities and Local Government; Transport; and Environment Food and Rural Affairs. The ministerial group will be assisted by an independent advisory panel chaired by Lord Heseltine that will make recommendations on which proposals best address the objectives of the RGF.”
So, do local people decide on which projects get the investment? Is it planned on a regional basis, as was the case with the RDAs? No. Nick Clegg and his cronies decide who gets the money. This is becoming entirely typical. A project supposedly designed to improve local economies is driven from the centre and turns out not to be local in any meaningful sense whatsoever. As in all these things, the wise approach is to follow the money. And you’ll usually find the money is in Westminster.
Where the government is happy to let local bodies take control is in areas where the cuts fall hardest. A cynic might suggest that as Eric Pickles announces more “localism” and the provision of services through local authorities on the one hand, he is dishing out a poisoned chalice of 25% budget cuts with the other. So, who gets the blame for failing services? Why, the local providers of course. After all, they are in charge now!
This is the essence of the “Big Society”. An abdication of government responsibility for services people rely on. There was a truly staggering piece on the “Office of the Big Society” on Radio Four’s PM programme on 12 January (listen from 22 mins). In it, Francis Maude made it clear not only that the government doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground in terms of service provision, but that it doesn’t want to know. In fact, it doesn’t care. It sees the obligation of government not to ensure everyone has local services they can rely on, but that they stand as far back as possible and see what happens. There is an admission that provision will be chaotic and patchy. They don’t care, because once the responsibility has gone from central government, they don’t think they can be judged on the outcomes.
So this is what localism means to the Tory-led government. Either it’s nothing more than shallow rhetoric, with powers being dragged back to Westminster, or, where it suits, it’s abandoning local communities to their own devices, to struggle on with vastly reduced budgets. Whichever way you look at it, it leaves people less in control of their own lives and the government’s claims to be empowering local communities looking very hollow indeed.