Letting go: Shifting power from Whitehall to town halls

1 January 2012

Roundtable seminar introduced by Baroness Eaton, Former Chair, Local Government Association, on 17 January 2012.

The Government has made devolution a key priority. The Prime Minister has pledged to end the “Whitehall knows best” attitude to public service delivery with greater plurality, decentralisation and local accountability. Yet while some of the policy milestones have been met, people are still uncertain about how to do it. So to explore the issues, Reform convened a roundtable seminar yesterday, led by Baroness Eaton, the former Chair of the Local Government Association, on the subject of “Letting go: Shifting power from Whitehall to town halls”.

At the heart of the Government’s proposals for decentralisation is the notion of delegating authority to “the lowest appropriate level”. Yet the idea that specific governmental or organisational levels are most appropriate for specific functions misses the point. The real question is the extent to which citizens, the users of public services, are engaged with service design and delivery. This does not mean citizens delivering services themselves (although it can), but does mean civil servants, local commissioners and service providers – including businesses – treating citizens as customers, and designing services with and around them.

Leading councils, such as Hampshire, are showing that it can be done. They are merging budgets and taking the decision to commission services, rather than try to deliver them too, which boosts efficiency and responsiveness. Other simple innovations, like putting complimentary services in the same buildings, have their place too. The Government’s community budgets pilots may move this agenda forward. But as one attendee commented, “the time for pilots is over”. It is time to translate all the rhetoric around shared services, personal budgets and voucher schemes into action.

Really pushing power away from Whitehall comes down to money. And with power comes responsibility, in budgets as elsewhere in life. For years central government has given local authorities money and freedom but come riding to the rescue when they fail. This has created asymmetries of power, which has ultimately left councils dependent on central government support. If localism is to work, Whitehall must trust local government, local government should be free to raise more tax revenue itself, and everyone should hold their nerve when services fail.

The £3.5 billion real terms reduction in local councils’ funding this year represents an unprecedented “burning platform” to change the way local services are delivered. This is not easy, but examples like North Dorset District Council, whose 25 per cent funding shortfall since 2006 has led to radical devolution to communities, show what can be done. In 2010 North Dorset was named as Best Community Partnership in the country.
The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.




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