This week we have a blog post from Mervyn Kohler, Special Adviser, at Age UK.
Even before the Scottish referendum campaign, there was a growing surge of interest in more devolution. It is a theme supported by all of the political parties. It is presented as the most promising way to get appropriate policies and practices implemented across areas and communities with widely varying needs, and also as a key to local economic regeneration and growth.
The early days of the Coalition were characterised by an enthusiasm for localism and the Big Society, and the burst of legislative activity linked to this was in some respects the harbinger of the deeper devolution idea. Conservative distain for ‘big government’ and Liberal instincts for local democracy came together serendipitously. We had local government given a ‘general power of competence’, and neighbourhoods were empowered to develop local plans (to address spatial planning and planning permission issues) and eventually to draw up neighbourhood or community budgets. We have the Community Right to Challenge (for the delivery of public services), the Community Right to Build (if approved by a local referendum), and the Right to Bid for community assets.
The adopting of this slew of new freedoms for local action has been patchy. Anecdotally, it seems that older people have been pretty unimpressed by these opportunities, yet older and retired people have a significant vested interest in making their local community work effectively and efficiently, and many have the time and skills to help make these initiatives happen. Perhaps part of the reason is the backdrop of austerity, with no new money to sustain these initiatives beyond initial (and time-limited) seed corn funds. Perhaps it was a pity that the bulk of support and advice was (inevitably) to be found electronically, and older people have been slow adopters of digital services. Perhaps we just never got round to selling the concept successfully.
But as we hurtle haphazardly towards more devolution, the stakes are rising. There is a recognition that local budgets are critical – we’ve seen it already with the City Deals signed between central government and the eight ‘core’ cities, along with their local enterprise partnerships, and to some extent health and social care services are also stumbling in this direction. Undoubtedly the UK is one of the world’s most centrally run societies: most money for services is raised and handed out centrally, and subject to central direction and rules. Locally raised taxes only represent 1.7% of GDP. This contrasts with Sweden and Canada where a combination of local and regional taxes tops 15% of GDP, with Germany and Spain where they account for over 10%, and even France comes in at 5.8%. If deeper devolution is to be meaningful and this means more local taxes, then all citizens – not just older ones – might want to pay more attention than the localism agenda has ever attracted.
But the point at issue is not whether we want more devolution or not. That die is cast: we all subscribe to the vision of modern, people-sensitive public services fit for an increasingly diverse society, and the opportunities and possibilities look more alluring than the status quo. The point is how we can ensure a proper voice and viable engagement of older people in the process. There is a lot that older people could contribute, and a lot they could gain. As new machinery for organising and running our localities is being fashioned, we need to see it as an opportunity to empower older people, and ensure that they are not languishing at the back of the queue and the last to be engaged.