A new report launched today (Tuesday 23rd January) reveals a damning assessment of successive governments attempts to decentralise power and give people meaningful control. The report is published by the independent Commission on the Future of Localism, chaired by Lord Bob Kerslake, and set up by Locality, the national charity supporting community organisations, in partnership with Power to Change, the independent trust supporting community businesses in England.
A YouGov poll, commissioned by Locality for the report launch, found that 80% of people feel they have not much or no control over decisions that affect the country, with 71% feeling they have not much or no control over the important decisions that affect their neighbourhood and local community. Recent initiatives to set up more localised decision making have gone unnoticed, with 71% knowing not very much or nothing at all about the devolution deals- which have established new “Metro Mayors”.
Despite the ‘take back control’ focus of the EU Referendum campaign, people don’t feel that Brexit is going to improve their sense of control, with 70% of the British public saying that Brexit will give them either the same, or even less control, over decisions that affect their local neighbourhood or community.
The Commission finds the fundamental shift in power away from Westminster – as promised in the 2011 Localism Act - has not been achieved. Britain remains over centralised with the balance of power stacked against local communities. The report calls for renewed action to see localism flourish and for local communities to have more control over decisions that impact on their quality of life.
Lord Kerslake, who was the senior Whitehall mandarin in the department that led on the development and implementation of the Localism Act and was Head of the Civil Service at time of George Osborne’s “devolution revolution” said:
“This Commission has revealed a profound rift between people and political power in Britain today. Attempts by successive governments to decentralise have not addressed this gulf between the governed and those that govern.
“The Localism Act was well intended but accompanied by a gruelling austerity programme and has not been backed up by the resources it needed. The current devolution agenda, whilst welcome, ignores the need for much greater neighbourhood-level participation and control.
“The terrible tragedy of the fire in Grenfell Tower might possibly have been avoided if one of the richest boroughs in the country had listened more to its poorest residents. Power can no longer be viewed as belonging to decision-makers to be ‘given away’. We must find a radical new way to involve people from every community, every street and every home across the country in the decisions that affect them.”
Only 3% of people polled said that local people currently have the most say over what happens in their local area, compared to 49% saying it is local government and 25% national government. Yet, when asked who should have the most say over half (57%) wanted people in their own community to be calling the shots, with 26% wanting it to be local government and only 3% national government.
The Commission calls for:
• A strengthened partnership between local government and local people. For local government to embrace community-led solutions, including by transferring community buildings to local community organisations, more local control of budgets, and to strengthen community organisations who can make it easier for people to get involved in local activities.
• Central government to create a stronger framework for local decision making by strengthening the Localism Act including increased powers for communities to take over important buildings with a new Community Right to Buy, to influence public services, through a new ‘services partnership power’, and by granting new powers to strengthen neighbourhood forums.
• Localism to be at the heart of the devolution agenda to ensure initiatives truly strengthen the power of community, enhance community accountability and neighbourhood control.
Localism Commissioner, Professor Jane Wills of Exeter University, Penryn campus, Cornwall said:
“Town and parish councils need more support and power to work with local people around the things that matter to them. Cornwall County Council has chosen to actively engage its town and parish councils to foster more local decision making as part of its devolution arrangements.
“As an example of what can be done, Falmouth Town Council has taken on services and developed new ones, with strong efforts to galvanise local people around planning the town’s development for the future. The Commission on the Future of Localism has been looking to find ways to support this kind of local leadership across the country.”
Tony Armstrong, CEO of Locality, said:
“When communities work together they can have a powerful and inspirational impact. Every day I see evidence of communities coming together to tackle problems and improve their local areas by running services, operating community facilities and buildings and helping local people overcome obstacles to improve their lives. But we are not making it easy for communities, and there are many more cases where this extraordinary potential lies latent, untapped, or simply ignored.
“Our power structures are set up so that communities often look up for permission to do things or wait to see whether someone else will fix their problems. It’s time for local leaders and decision makers to change things- strengthening community institutions so that people can get involved, giving up financial control by giving people more of a direct say in setting local budgets, and boosting the community ownership of important buildings and spaces rather than selling them off to private developers.
“We need a transformation in attitudes, relationships and power so that local councils and communities work together to create the environment for people across our neighbourhoods to thrive.”