Last night Professor Tony Travers examined the ideas behind the Coalition’s New Localism agenda, exploring how it might work and what it could entail. Much of the New Localism agenda can be seen in the Localism Bill. While some of the elements are not particularly ‘localist’, such as more Directly Elected Mayors or the creation of Police Commissioners, many of the plans seek to distribute ‘power’ away from ‘County or Town halls’ by giving community or street groups control of local services, local planning or the ability to initiate local referenda. Here the ‘New Localism’ agenda meets the ‘big society’.
Yet there exists questions over its newness, the capacity of bodies to do the work and over the transfer of risk.
This agenda is not as ‘new’ as it seems. Many authorities already operate through a ‘plurality’ of groups. From Business Improvement Districts, to ‘single service institutions’ such as houses near a park paying extra for its upkeep, this type of ‘street level’ or community provision already exists.
Nor is it certain the charities, NGOs and other bodies who reformers hope take up the reins are able or willing to do so. Some bodies wish to remain small and lack the capacity to take on a service. There is also a question of motivation. While ‘enlightened self interest’ is the best motivator this may only hold for particular issues.
The final concern is that of risk. If a local authority remains statutorily responsible for a service, where does risk go? And can an authority transfer it? While an authority may be able to assist if a community run library collapses, the loss of a valuable service, such as one dealing with children, is far more problematic. Within this issue is that of blame: will an authority still be held responsible even when services are passed to others?
The New Localism reforms may improve capacity at local level and ‘give’ power back to ‘the community’. They may, on the other hand, lead to a fracturing of local arrangements and increased power for central government. The difficulty for all involved is that it depends on the public to make and shape the New Localism, so we can have no real idea of what it will look like until it arrives.