A political certainty in 2015? From Localism to Devolution

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. Continue reading “A political certainty in 2015? From Localism to Devolution”

Roundup – National Children’s and Adults Services Conference

This year’s ‘National Children’s and Adults Services’ (social care) conference, saw contrasting perspectives on the changing role of local authorities. Peter Hay, the current President  of the Association of Directors of Adult social Services, speaking at the morning session, welcomed the new leadership role of local authorities with regard to public health.

In the afternoon, by contrast, Andy Burnham, the new shadow Secretary of State was concerned that current reforms would result in a loss of local authority powers and of local accountability. Concentrating on the NHS and on education, his view was that reforms were dominated by provider interests. They hand huge power to GP’s and Head Teachers and take it away from service users. ‘In a world with no PCT’s,’ asked Burnham ‘how can patients challenge decisions by GP commissioners?’. He concluded that Parliament has not yet woken up to the full implications of these reforms.

The current Localism bill includes proposals for independent social work practices to take over local authority social work functions, so this raises the question of whether Burnham’s concerns will be an issue for adult social care. Independent practices are already being piloted, and in August the Secretary of State for Health issued the Contracting Out (England) order 2011 to ensure that the delegation of local authority functions to these practices is lawful. The order can be found here.

Whether this order was strictly necessary depends on what independent social work practices will be expected to do. Older people for the most part do not receive extended social work interventions. Their contact with social work is more likely to be through assessment, arranging services, and if they are lucky, subsequent reviews of their care and support arrangements. Continue reading “Roundup – National Children’s and Adults Services Conference”

Local referendum scrapped

Communities lose the chance to use local referendum to debate the issues they think are important.

As the Localism Bill enters its last stages the government dropped a clause that allowed local people to instigate referendum on any local issue and concerning any local public body.

This is disappointing because it takes away an opportunity to give older people a way to be involved in local decision making and get their issues debated.

The change of heart came after a Lords debate earlier this month, which suggested the referendum process would be expensive and at risk of abuse from extreme groups.

The government could have responded to these challenges by strengthening the Bill rather than scrapping the whole idea.

In the original proposals the local authority would have been able to decide whether it was appropriate to carry out the referendum or not. There could have been clearer standards to give councils the ability to legitimately decide whether or not to take a topic forward as a referendum. This would have reduced the risk of the process being hijacked.

It’s also important to remember that in fact the Bill stated the results of the referendum were non-binding. Councils could have decided whether or not to act on the results.

This supported an alternative argument that the local referendum was too weak.

On the other hand referendums would have given another method for communities to participate in local debate, rather than waiting for the council to consult them.

Baroness Hanham claimed there was “pretty good coverage for people to have their voice heard”.

Having spoken to older people’s forums about the Localism Bill I thought this seemed a little disingenuous. More ways are needed for there people in later life to shape the neighbourhoods they live in and services they rely on.

There are other measures still in the Bill that give communities more rights, including running public services, neighbourhood planning and buying local buildings. Yet what marks all of these is the level of complexity that is neededto understand them and the commitment needed to make them work. (See previous blog – Can you take the community challenge?)

The government now needs to focus energy on making sure engagement and inclusion are at the heart of the remaining community rights so that everyone is given equal opportunity to participate.

The referendum idea may not have been perfect. It was however a fairly straightforward option for individuals to understand and be able to initiate  debate on issues that come from the community rather than the council.

Read our brefing on the Localism Bill

The Party Conferences and Public Service Reform

The headline stories from the Party Conferences were about the economy, and the orchestration by the organisers and managers to present their parties in themost favourable light.   Party members were a bit thin on the ground, but lobbyists were there in abundance.   Yet around the fringe meetings, the theme of public service reform was vigorously discussed.

Public service reform is one area to which all the parties subscribe with varying degrees of warmth.   The common ground is that we cannot provide services in the top-down way as in the past:  they must be more user-responsive and ‘personalised’, and we have to re-configure them to get more outcomes for less money.  

How we do this is more difficult.   Localism, enshrined in the Coalition Agreement, passes more responsibility to local government and local representatives, with a diminished role for the centre to set national targets and eligibility criteria, but local councillors attending the conferences were in two minds about having this task thrust upon them.   They will need to rethink their role:  are they the voice of the Council delivering the services, or are they the voice of the neighbourhood, demanding that the Council needs to change the way it provides services (ie place-shapers, seeking new powers for community groups and other service-providers in their patch)?  

Nowhere was this more hotly debated than in the area of social care provision, a big ticket spending item for local government, and one where there is a policy vacuum as the Government tries to draw a new map which triangulates national entitlements, local flexibility in service responses, and encouraging new service providers to enter the market.

That last was also discussed on the fringe.   How do we enable more mutuals and social enterprises, and support more local volunteering, to add to our public service offering?   At all the conferences there was willingness to engage with this issue, but a raft of difficulties and barriers was identified.  

We are spreading the word about models of good practice very poorly.   There are few immediate places where would-be providers can access good information about extant working models.   There is little resource for the consumer who is encouraged to take control of their personalised budget to find ideas and inspiration.   Whilst at all the Party Conferences there was willingness to address public services reform, there was a shared frustration with how to do so.

Find out more about our party conference activity