The UK remains one of the most centralised systems of government in the democratic world. For nearly 50 years local government has increasingly become captive to the central UK state. The collapse of the poll tax created a lurch to the centre which has never been reversed. Politicians across the spectrum have called for a variety of changes to reverse this, but to little avail. Labours “double devolution” and “total place” have been replaced by the coalition’s focus on localism. Yet the greatest energy to kick start the economy lies in local action. That is not just a UK claim. Whether in California or China’s Science Cities, economic activity tends to strongly cluster. The 90s notion of the “death of distance” has proven to be a myth. Economic activity globally is increasingly congregating into cities and city regions. What I wish to argue here is that the key problem in the UK has been a failure to argue a principled case for the separation of powers and a stable basis for reciprocity between the centre and local governance.
What kind of offers in the manifestos for the 2015 election would enable actions at the centre to liberate local government and devolved agencies to generate local economies and tackle the societal challenges of an ageing population, public health, rising school roles, environmental change and youth unemployment just to illustrate the many and varied challenges that the UK faces. I’d like to use a recent historical example to illustrate the case, the super casino. On what principle is this a  matter for central government? If a seaside town or a conference city for instance wanted to open one, then why is that not a local matter that should be decided by local people? Las Vegas doesn’t need to go to Washington to get permission. The argument that if one town has one they will be all over the place in a short while seems to me entirely fatuous. There is only one Las Vegas in the USA, with possibly Atlantic City as a competitor. This illustrates to me the over centralisation in the fabric of UK Governance. There is more than enough for central government to do apart from  the choice of which post code gets a casino to be a priority task, yet parliamentary time is wasted unnecessarily.
Back in the 1990s, the old word “Subsidiarity” made its way into the political discourse for a while. I think that it is an important concept that needs to be revived to create a more agile and flexible response to the economic and social challenges of the UK. Put simply, all decisions should be taken at the lowest level compatible with the integrity of the whole. Sometimes things can be over devolved. For instance, when local management of school budgets was introduced  in the 1980s, unnecessary tensions were created and economic inefficiencies created. As each school had to balance its own budget separately, school reserves rose dramatically, with the consequence that a higher portion of the education budget was sitting in contingency in bank accounts rather than being used for its primary purpose. When schools started to take responsibility for their own premises, insurance costs went up because instead of one premium per area, the number of contracts needed escalated with increasing costs. The overall design led to some strange anomalies. I can remember one primary school that worked out that its discretionary budget was 19p per pupil per year! Most of the costs were set out beyond the schools control, so in reality this was “local visibility of budgets” rather than management. When I gave this example at a schools conference, a head of a secondary did the calculation for his school and gave me a figure of over -£50K as his discretionary budget. I use a historical example here to show that this is a long-term problem, not the result of current policies or nostrums.
Using another education example, I’d like to contrast it with private sector practice in banking. The IT infrastructure in a branch is not delegated to individual branch managers. Compare this with schools. By devolving budgets we expect Heads and senior management teams to become expert in IT procurement. That does not seem to me to be a useful use of school resources, especially in difficult financial times. I would still argue that even in healthy financial times, this is not a sensible way to approach the running of schools. I would argue that this would be true of other devolved services, such as the police.
I am not arguing that the centre should dictate what is to be given and that the devolved elements are given no choice, far from it. The design of the “choice architecture” in a subsidiarity model should be bottom-up not top down.
In Higher Education, UCAS has existed for many years to provide a shared service for University entrance. It is highly respected, well run and has proven very reliable over many years. Again in HE, SuperJanet, the Universities broadband infrastructure, has run smoothly for many years and evolved through generations of technology. The important element of these examples is that they are sectoral collaborations as shared services. It took time for their scope and running to be agreed. They are bottom-up collaborations. Importantly, they are evidence that this type of model can work in the UK context.
So, if HE can do it, how might Local Governance move in this direction? It is important to stress that the lessons of UCAS and Janet are that these partnerships become sustainable when not driven from the centre. Top down targets and exhortations for savings from shared-service arrangements only work if a “one size fits all” approach is appropriate and that the timetables are owned by the participants.
In the Localism Act (2011) Local Authorities were given the “General Power of Competence”. In theory this helps create a culture where local authorities can “seek forgiveness, not permission”. That is not without risk, and a rush to run before learning to walk in a world of freedom not constraint is unwise. Particularly in a time of financial constraint, it may well feel like being given freedom without the resources to be free.
On the contrary I would argue that the capacity, and need, to innovate provides incentives for local authorities to better meet the needs of local communities even, or especially, in a time of hardship. To tackle a variety of problems, such as public health, social care, crime and reoffending, youth unemployment and economic regeneration, local government’s democratic mandate creates a legitimacy to tackle the problems in a local area in a way that is responsive to local nuances.
Consider for instance tackling diabetes. This is a large and growing problem for both the NHS and social care. Because it has both health and life style challenges, approaches need to be sensitive to specific cultures, religions and communities. There is no single silver bullet. Both for the officers and members, the general power of competence allows for novel solutions embracing multi agencies, private and third sector. The problems of the real world do not fall neatly into the silos of single departments in single organisations.
Similarly, with the ageing population, working with the third sector may be a better approach to supporting carers of dementia sufferers than provision by adult social care. Supporting communities of carers is best done by those who understand the problem, which is, in reality, other carers. I do not see this as abdication by LG or a “cut in services”. Done well this is about the statutory bodies looking at services to the public rather than specifically public services. Using the general powers of competence can spur innovation, but do not rush.
If there was a “one size fits all” model for any community challenge, then there would be no need for localism. It cannot be mandated from the centre. It is in the design of the “choice architecture” at a community level that the confidence and competence needs to be built. That is the real challenge for Leadership.
This article is from Dr Chris Yapp, Koru’s Senior Public Sector Adviser