Towards a more viable localism

Making English localism succeed needs a reform agenda for the whole of Government, says Dr Patrick Diamond. The centre and the local must work together to solve complex policy problems, not least by using city region mayors.

Over the last decade, successive Governments have supported the ambition of greater localism in England. Yet the aspiration has never been realised. There is, it seems, a recurring gap between promise and performance. The reason is less to do with local government itself than the dysfunctional nature of UK Government at the centre which persistently stifles reform.

It is not simply about passing down power to local authorities. Any viable localist project for England requires a strategic and capable centre. The evidence is that states which do best in responding to challenges such as COVID-19 have effective multi-level governance systems. Governments that are either highly centralised or decentralised tend to be less effective.

Whitehall's centralising mindset over the last 20 years reflects a position of weakness. The civil service has become increasingly demoralised. Ministers have expressed frustration at their inability to achieve their policy goals. The political parties, in turn, have lacked any coherent account of localism. It is clear that localism can only work if there is a strong, but strategic centre, performing those functions that the local cannot while co-ordinating the distribution of powers and responsibilities.

The aim of localism is to promote flourishing neighbourhoods and communities, improve the quality of public services, and strengthen engagement in local democracy.

However, it is important to acknowledge that ‘localism' is an inherently ambiguous concept. Who is localism empowering – citizens, communities, or councils?

Recent governments have sought to enable citizens, but certainly not local authorities, denuded of resources and powers. There are different forms of localism. Selective decentralisation of responsibility is far less radical than active devolution. A viable localism means acknowledging and facing up to inherent trade-offs. The key fault line remains national standards and equity versus diversity and ‘postcode lotteries'.

The real weakness of English localism is best explained by the dysfunctional centre in Whitehall and Westminster. The civil service has been transformed since the 1980s, but the traditional ‘public service bargain' has been eroded. There is growing conflict between Ministers and officials, particularly where civil servants are accused of not being sufficiently enthusiastic about Government policy.

There are increasing tensions driven by the personalisation of civil service appointments, especially permanent secretaries; recruitment of officials from the private sector; cuts in administrative capacity; and the effort to make officials operational managers rather than ministerial advisers.

The second dimension of central Government's dysfunction is the attempt to break the civil service monopoly over policy advice. As a result, ministers now rely less on officials. This has become a real problem.

Politicians invariably come to power with a distinctive agenda. There is growing reliance on management consultants, as well as the expanded influence of think-tanks, advisory bodies and ‘celebrity reviews'. Too many policy ideas are not properly thought through.

A further dimension is the centralisation of power.

Prime ministers have strengthened capacity at the centre in Number 10. Policy-making has become more partisan, driven by the permanent campaign mindset. Downing Street units have increased in size. Meanwhile, Government business plans set targets for departments and local councils, directly undermining localism.

These changes have been driven by two dynamics. One is hyper-politicisation: Governments are increasingly motivated by electoral and polling objectives. The other is hyper-innovation, the constant layering of new initiatives onto current policies. The UK has been at the forefront of a global reform wave. This meant a barrage of changes to public services. Institutions have constantly been reorganised, epitomised by the shift from Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships.

There is a failure to join up and align policies as local authorities make sense of initiatives manufactured through departmental silos in Whitehall. The atmosphere is one of microwave, not slow-cooker policy-making. The policy process is anarchic and chaotic, driven by the electoral cycle. There is less capacity for policy learning; the risk of blunders and fiascos has grown.

The changes serve to make local and place-based strategies ever harder to achieve. The environment is one in which localism struggles to develop momentum.

Central Government has continued to hoard power, underlining its fragility. The Treasury still does not trust councils. New Labour imposed top-down reforms, while the 2011 Localism Act stipulated 142 duties and regulations for local authorities. The dysfunctional centre refuses to address the institutional constraints that undermine the local tier, notably the lack of formal links to ministers and the absence of constitutional protection.

A viable localism means a reform agenda for the whole of Government. The centre and the local level must collaborate to solve complex policy problems at the appropriate spatial scale, not least by utilising the growing political clout of city region mayors.

Reforms must include increasing capacity for joining up, alongside prevention and early intervention. Evidence should be used more effectively, improving the capacity for deliberative policy-making with citizens. Localism also requires local government funding reform; constitutional representation in a reformed second chamber and the enshrining of localism principles in statute.

The centre of Government cannot realistically be dismantled. But it needs to become more strategic and far less controlling if English localism is to succeed in the future.

Dr Patrick Diamond is reader/associate professor of public policy at Queen Mary University of London and Gwilym Gibbon fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford


This article is a summary of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) 2021 Annual Lecture at De Montfort University, given by Dr Diamond


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