Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Devolution needs to be bold and radical

More accurately, since Scottish and Welsh devolution in the last decade, England is centralised. Does this matter? If we believe that decisions are best made, or even influenced, by those most affected by them, the answer is ‘yes’.

Localist solutions are better if there is recognition that different needs and views should be reflected in different service provision, even if there is a common policy framework or over-arching set of objectives. There is real concern about the growing disconnect between politicians who govern and the people who are governed.

Making decisions locally may help save democracy itself, if electors can see their votes change things.
There is unlikely to be an English Parliament. There is not going to be any re-creation of the regions. If devolution is going to occur, it will be through the development of enhanced powers and responsibilities for local authorities. Fundamentally, localism will only work if elected representatives are accountable for decisions.

Wider strategic decision making beyond individual councils is likely to come from councils coming together voluntarily. The process of creating combined authorities for city regions to oversee economic development across a travel-to-work area began in Manchester and is now being activated in Sheffield and Leeds.

The West Lothian question has been a distraction from the creation of a dynamic democracy, fit for this century, where subsidiarity is the principle that is applied appropriately but differently in different parts of the country. We need to be more relaxed about asymmetrical governance.

Is fundamental devolution a real possibility? There is increasing cross-party agreement in Parliament that councils are capable of delivering far more than their existing powers and responsibilities allow. Unfortunately, the current coalition government has supported localism in name only; it has no core delivery strategy.

Furthermore, this government has consistently fudged the issue as to whether localism is about transferring powers to locally accountable and elected bodies or simply, as part of its objective of having a smaller state, creating new organisations such as free schools, which have little or no accountability. The decision to pursue single purpose elections, such as for police and crime commissioners further muddles the picture. If Whitehall silos are a problem, why create new silos at a local level?

Subsidiarity cannot stop at the town hall. Up and down the country, councils of all political persuasions have developed devolved influencing, decision-making and budget-holding arrangements appropriate to their local communities. Quite rightly, there is no one-size-fits-all model but a variety of approaches to suit local circumstances.

When more powers are transferred to local level, there will still be a need for overall national approaches on some issues. Minimum standards may be thought appropriate in education or care. Councils could deliver these, while enabling local variations in delivery and additional improvements according to local wishes.

Innovation and new ways of working are more likely to occur in a multitude of local authorities than in one Whitehall department. People, locally and nationally, will still want to know that they are getting good value from devolved services. Therefore, localism must bring with it an expectation of continuous improvement, tools for performance evaluation and transparency in outcomes.

Devolution needs to be bold and radical, going beyond those services traditionally within local government’s remit. There is a crying need for policies on economic development, skills, training and transport infrastructure to be determined locally, better related to local circumstances and the needs of local businesses.

The key issues in any devolutionary settlement are:

  • Councils have to be at the heart of localism, not bypassed by it;
  • Although serious consideration should be given to a more formal constitutional settlement, defining central-local relations, it is a cultural change that is required. We will have to ditch the notion that the secretary of state is responsible for everything – a challenge for the press, the public and politicians;
  • Localism will require the devolution of fund raising as well as spending. Linking economic development to financial returns for councils and their communities makes economic as well as political sense;
  • There will still need to be a mechanism for the redistribution of resources within England. Why not give that responsibility to local government itself, as is the case in Denmark?
  • Councils will require more freedom, within prudential financial guidelines, to borrow for long-term investment as well as to raise revenue;
  • Challenging the postcode lottery and arguing positively for a postcode choice has to be at the heart of any new approach. It is ironic that our centralised governance structure has managed to produce inequalities in income, gross domestic product and service delivery far greater than in far more decentralised countries.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 6 February 2014

Monday, 10 February 2014

Rising insecurity

The majority of working households are facing the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation. Prices are increasing, real wages are falling and for many hard-working people there is rising insecurity in the workplace.

Months ago, Ed Miliband highlighted the excessive profits being made by energy companies and promised a price freeze, with other interventions to make the market competitive. Cameron and Clegg lambasted that promise, whilst claiming that all was well. Yet now, the Energy Secretary has written to the regulator, OFGEM, saying that the profit margins made by the "Big Six" energy companies when supplying gas are much higher than previously thought. It makes you wonder where he and OFGEM have been as the statistics being used have been public for many weeks.

Then, David Cameron has been making much of some statistics which suggest that employment has been rising. However, an analysis of those statistics reveals a massive increase in self-employment, zero-hours contracts and part-time working. It is little surprise that the number of people who say they feel insecure at work has doubled since he became Prime Minister.

That insecurity has been compounded for households with the lowest incomes as the real value of the minimum wage has fallen and support from working benefits continues to be cut. Both employers and employees need flexibility but this shouldn’t mean people should lack job security and have to be flexible about being able to afford the weekly shop.

That’s why we should ban those zero-hours contracts which simply exploit workers, end the scandal of false self-employment, strengthen the National Minimum Wage and incentivise employers to pay a Living Wage through ‘make work pay’ contracts.

In that way, we can tackle the cost of living crisis and the stress from rising insecurity at work, by building an economy that works for working people, rather than participating in a race to the bottom. It’s what good employers want as well.