From the left to the right of the Labour party, it would seem we’re all localists now. The latest example came this week, with Andrew Adonis’s proposals for economic decentralisation met by almost universal acclaim. If the ‘big state’ Fabians are signed up, Labour’s argument on decentralisation is surely over?
Well, up to a point. England is the most centralised nation in the developed world, so the broad direction of travel is not in question. Devolution makes sense when the success of public services depends on shared endeavour between citizens and professionals; on responding to local conditions and individual circumstances; and on overcoming fragmentation and institutional short-termism. But talking in generalities masks much that is unresolved. There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ versions of localism and big questions remain about the place of national government. Yes, we should have a presumption of decentralisation. But only if Labour first defines a clear strategic role for the centre and explains how and when that should be a check on localism.
The centre matters for three reasons. First, only national (and sometimes supranational) institutions can respond to the most serious long-term challenges: housing shortages, tax reform, climate change or financial stability. Sometimes the solutions will be local, but only national government can set the long-term ambition and create the frameworks within which others can act.
Second, England is a national political community. The secretaries of state for health and education do not have the public’s consent to walk away from their responsibilities, even if they wanted to. That may gradually change, but for the foreseeable future, people will expect politicians to specify the minimum entitlements and outcomes all can expect. Central government can be less controlling about how ends are achieved, leaving lots of space for grassroots innovation and local priorities. But when it comes to the 2015 manifesto Labour should feel entitled to set big national goals for local services, be that extending early years provision to bringing together health and social care.
Third, there should be a national approach to evidence and evaluation. We live in an age of growing transparency, but data sheds no light without context. A national approach to tracking achievement is essential for comparison and accountability, even though those tasks should be undertaken more often by local citizens or professional peers, not ministers and inspectorates.
It is not just the role of the centre that remains unresolved, however. The nature of Labour’s decentralisation is contested too, a point the Adonis report rather skates over. Labour seems undecided as to whether it is devolution to the city region, neighbourhood or individual institution that matters. And it lacks consistent principles for deciding the balance of power between citizens, professionals and local elected politicians.
In particular, it is far from clear that Labour has confidence in elected local politicians as the key stewards for localism. Labour councils are often singled out for praise, but it seems they won’t be trusted with new powers over schools or health. And they are judged too small to take on responsibility for skills, transport and job centres.
This begs the question, how does the voting public hold to account the myriad of new local institutions like clinical commissioning groups, school standards directors, Local Enterprise Partnerships and combined authorities.
Labour needs to embrace a strong role for local councils, as well as national government. If it is not careful, new local power will end up lying with anonymous, unelected bodies creating new deficits of democracy, accountability and power. The pieces of the devolution jigsaw will only fit into place if stronger local government has the job of coordinating every local public service.