A little later today I am filming a speech for a virtual conference. I have often been asked to contribute to short films shown at conferences but this is a whole 20 minute speech. Normally when I speak I use just a few notes and the speech evolves to some extent to reflect the feedback I am getting from the audience so I am intrigued as to how it will feel speaking at a camera. The rationale for virtual events is presumably that things are simpler and more convenient than real life. I’m not sure this holds up. The film crew arrived at 9.00 to set up, filming starts at 11.00 and I am booked until 14.00!
The focus of the speech is ’localism’. As is often the case with a speech on a general topic there is a balance between covering points which always come up and trying to say something new. So, I will say that more local control is better for responsiveness and accountability, while also recognising complications like the competing forms of public engagement. The issues of equity and universality have also to be addressed. My view is that central control doesn’t necessarily mean more consistency of local practice than local control but that, in a country as economically unbalanced as the UK, it is important to maintain some redistribution to avoid a feedback loop in which the most privately affluent places also inevitably end up as the ones with the best services, which in turn makes them even more attractive to investment.
The points I want to make which go slightly beyond the usual localism debate are these. There is an ethical argument for localism in that we want people to have the scope to exercise judgement and fulfil their potential to do the right thing. The more devolved the system, the more scope there is for people to make choices adding the ‘hidden wealth’ of creativity, commitment and good intentions to the more tangible resources of service delivery. The counter to this is the need for systems which help to identify bad choices. It was probably the case that the central inspection system overseen by the Audit Commission had, under the previous Government, become too cumbersome and flabby (as had the Commission itself). However the abolition of the Commission will create major gaps in terms of evidence based comparisons. Local authorities will still produce data but, without a body which can contextualise the figures, comparisons could be more misleading than useful. Despite their limited resources it is important that councils and their peak organisations try to fill this evidence gap.
The second argument for localism goes back to the RSA’s concern with the social aspiration gap. The virtue of greater local control lies not only in making authorities and services more responsive but also in developing a more reciprocal conversation between agencies and citizens. The goal here is to blur the boundaries between state and civic action so that social outcomes (for example, improved care for older people, safer streets, better educated children) are explicitly seen as the consequences of the combined efforts of public agencies, individuals and families, and communities. Many RSA projects – like Citizen Power Peterborough – reveal that it is easier for public agencies to sign up to this idea than to carry it into policy and delivery. In part this is because we all like to feel we are in control of our own performance. If it is accepted that effective local governance and service delivery relies upon the positive engagement of citizens, it means public agencies have to live with higher degrees of openness and uncertainty.
Finally, I will argue that localism is about history, culture and economics as well as governance arrangements. Yesterday Radio 4 broadcast an Analysis programme I made about the interest amongst politicians in the Labour Party - and also the other parties - about the recent success of Germany. Visiting Hamburg for the programme it was clear to me that one of the strengths of Germany – ironically the consequence of the post war structure imposed by Britain and other allies – is geographical. As well as strong regions (Lander) it feels like financial, political and cultural resources are much better distributed than in South East dominated England.
Localism relies, among other things, on regions and cities outside the South East being able to hold on to their talent and being able to have an independent relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. One vivid example of the problem comes in the decline of Labour in Scotland, something which has made a significant contribution to the rise of the SNP and- who knows – the eventual move to independence. There are many reasons why Labour declined north of the border but the single biggest was that talented Labour politicians all rushed to Westminster rather than staying at home as figures who could have challenged the dominance of Alex Salmond.
This point enables me to end on an upbeat note and a challenge. The speech is being recorded for a North West audience and this is the region which right now seems the most likely to be able to challenge the dominance of the South East. However, the power of local influence is in the end as much about horizontal collaboration as vertical devolution. Cities, towns and their citizens can be given the scope to shape their own destinies but that promise is only likely to be fulfilled if local leaders built powerful and creative partnerships. Too often over the years I have heard local politicians complain about central control, when their own unwillingness to collaborate has been a much more important constraint on local initiative.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.