Decentralisation won’t bring power to the people

The assumption of the government is that the current economic crisis is going to lead to greater decentralisation. That local government, pressured by declining resources, will let go and voluntary organisations will pick up the slack and that existing arrangements of devolution that have emerged will remain in place.

Actually none of this will automatically happen as we are facing a huge dilemma in local government in the drive for greater efficiency but also more engagement and the danger is that solutions coming from local government think tanks or central government dictate will not genuinely engage with the local community.

My council has already delegated control of over half a million pounds to local communities. It is a policy that is under threat as hard pressed voluntary groups have asked me to take the money away from community committees and target it from the centre. Equally those officers working on local communities are in inevitable positions that the pressured centre is going to examine for possible cuts.

Furthermore, the large voluntary organisations are not geared towards local decision making and democratic accountability. All of this could mean that the transference of power away from institutions of local government towards organisations with a less prescribed relationship with the local community could lead to a more frustrating relationship for local people.

This is not to say that local government has a monopoly on accountability, but it is to identify that the issues we are facing up to require a more sophisticated approach than simply making vague statements in support of ‘the Big Society’.

There is a further worrying strand in central government thinking that although ostensibly is about decentralisation it will, in my view, contribute to a feeling of alienation by the local community from decision making structures. It’s what I would characterise as the government’s return to the deferential society. By that I mean the idea that decision making should be ‘devolved’ to the professionals.

So, in education policy we see emerging the view that decisions should effectively be made by head teachers without structures of accountability and in the NHS the idea that GPs should make decisions without being answerable for those decisions. I see this as a modern throwback to the society that pertained in the 50s and 60s where your bank manager, doctor or teacher knew best. Added to which, too many large voluntary organisations have limited structures of local accountability. If the purpose of devolution is to re-empower local communities then all of this will hinder a revitalisation of the local approach. There are, however, a couple of alternatives worth considering.

As a member of the Cooperative Councils Network we have been particularly interested, not just in provider co-operatives, but also in consumer co-operatives. In terms of empowerment the two models address very different issues. We sought to create through our leisure trust a model of involvement by ordinary people in determining the priorities of the organisation so that our leisure centres reflect the involvement of ordinary people.

We have further sought to re-engage with our local communities by the setting up of eight neighbourhood committees and whilst I appreciate many have done something similar, the crucial difference for us is that our neighbourhood committees are not just comprised of councillors but also of representatives on the whole range of local community organisations. It has been this body that has been working with significant local budgets to decide where that money should be awarded and had we not been living though a period of austerity and entrenchment, would have wanted to expand the work they did significantly.

The challenge for us will be to redesign our services to ensure a dual system of accountability to a strong centre driving forward policies to benefit the whole of our city and secondly to reflect the diversity of areas that will have slightly differing priorities and to ensure we can pick those up. Devolution needs to be something that is the subject of meaningful debate not just a mantra that is recited as an automatic solution to our problems.


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