Local Government Association conference: 8 July 2010

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Transcript of the speech as delivered. Introduction Parliament is literally and metaphorically a place of divisions. Left versus right. …

Transcript of the speech as delivered.


Parliament is literally and metaphorically a place of divisions. Left versus right. Front bench versus back bench. Government versus opposition.

But when it really comes down to it, there are just two kinds of MP: those who have been councillors and those who haven’t.

The first category has many advantages over the second. But in my experience there is one big disadvantage. And that is the culture shock. How can I describe it? The weight of responsibility. The privilege of power. The sense of being at the very centre of things. And then you throw it all away by becoming an MP for the first time.

If you ever wondered why some MPs are so desperate to attain ministerial office, it’s because they want to regain what they once had in local government: the ability to act and not just represent.

In my role as Minister of State for Decentralisation, I’m sometimes told that councillors aren’t up to the responsibility of power.

My reply is look at the job they’re doing already. The services they run. The decisions they make. Compare their record on public sector efficiency with that of central government. And, then, tell me who’s up to the job.

**II: This time is different
Of course, local government is not without its problems.But the most important of these is not of your making. It is the difficulty of doing your job in one of the most centralised countries in the western world.

I’m pleased to say that this is about to change. This is a government genuinely committed to decentralisation. I do, of course, understand why you might want to put our commitment to the test.

Past experience will have taught you that Westminster politicians are localists in opposition and centralists in government.

So, why should this time be different?

Here are five reasons:

  • Firstly, David Cameron didn’t make decentralisation a theme of his election campaign, but the theme - in the form of the Big Society. Previous Prime Ministers had other priorities.
  • Secondly, the Big Society forms the basis of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with a common commitment to localism forming the tightest bond between the two parties.
  • Thirdly, in the substantial shape of Eric Pickles, localism has a true champion around the Cabinet table.
  • Fourthly, we’re already getting on with the job. We’ve abolished the ill-considered HIPS regime. We’re abolishing the undemocratic IPC, which would have made unilateral planning decisions about some of this country’s most significant planning projects. We’ve tackled garden-grabbing on so-called brown field sites. We’ve de-ring-fenced over £1 billion of local government spending, bringing the unfenced total this year to £38bn. We’ve scrapped the heavy burden of CAA. We’ve put an end to wasteful local government restructuring into centralised unitary authorities. Not bad for our first 50 days.
  • Fifthly, as announced in the Queen’s speech, we will shortly introduce the Decentralisation and Localism Bill. This will be a landmark piece of legislation. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find anything on the statute book that transfers more power from central to local government than is the case with this Bill.

For all of these reasons I can say with some confidence that this is the localist moment, the greatest opportunity for decentralisation in decades.

III: The virtue of necessity

I should also mention the small matter of necessity. As a Treasury minister in the former government recently made clear, there is no money left.

What central government does have plenty of, though, is power - and it is power, rather than money, that will be the main currency of redistribution for a long time to come

Decentralisation is what governments should do to stop wasting money.

Because, make no mistake, centralised government is wasteful.

According to a study for the European Central Bank, highly decentralised countries like the US, Australia, Japan and Switzerland are twenty per cent more efficient than we are.

But why should this be? Doesn’t centralisation allow for cost control? Economies of scale? Consolidation, benchmarking and all the rest of it?

That is the theory; but in practice it doesn’t work.

Researchers such as Professor John Seddon of Cardiff University Business School have developed a convincing academic account of what has gone wrong.
But, essentially, it boils down to the fact that public services are about people, not things.

When management systems lose sight of this key fact, they lose touch with the enormous complexity of human situations, and therefore control of the services that are supposed to improve the lives involved.

Moreover, centralisation means a loss of cohesion between the different services that impact on the lives of the same individuals. When control is local, services can be joined up at the frontline. But when control is central, the focus is on hierarchy, on the chains-of-command that pull those different services in different directions.

We also see a loss of local knowledge. Even when the centre seeks to join-up public services, it starts with what it knows, which is the chain of command. This distracts attention from where services actually need to come together, which is the end-user. Needless to say, it is impossible for the centre to keep tabs on so many personal situations. Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen repeated attempts to achieve just that by means of one disastrous IT project after another.

Finally, there is a loss of incentive. While people’s problems can only be solved locally, when there are any savings they are usually clawed back by an undeserving and ungrateful centre.

For obvious reasons, the economy is the biggest challenge facing us right now. But we can’t restore order to our finances without reforming the public sector, and we can’t reform the public sector without decentralising control.

Localism, therefore, is of central importance.

IV: Breaking the chains

So how do we get from the present situation to one where local cohesion, knowledge and incentive is restored to running our public services?

It won’t be easy.

Decentralisation is not one policy agenda, but many.

As well as the public service agenda, there is the planning agenda, the direct democracy agenda and other vital matters like local taxation, regional government and the role of the voluntary sector.

Take planning. On Tuesday we announced an end to regional planning strategies and the return of planning power to local councils.

The new system will be clear and efficient, replacing those dreaded central targets - for houses that never got built - with common-sense local decision-making, based on what people actually want.

Accompanying this - and as part of our pledge to cut down on bureaucracy - we have introduced a new ‘light-touch’ question and answer briefing for councils who need to meet the planning challenge.

Here it is - not quite pocket size, but not far off.

Compare that to what we have here - over 3,000 pages of various RSS documentation covering the South East region under the old system.

Brought to Bournemouth at considerable effort - but at no extra expense you’ll be glad to hear.

For the metrically minded, that’s 30 grams of q and a replacing 13.5 kg of prescriptive regional planning instructions. Light touch indeed!

Today CLG has joined the Department for Education in announcing structural reform plans that put localism at the heart of our thinking.

Over the next 18 months we will deliver radical transparency and decentralising reforms through a step-by-step blueprint for handing over power to town halls.

These will help local communities to take over the reins and deliver localism in practice - and in ways that they decide make sense to them.

Quite simply, we are re-booting Whitehall. We are prising the micromanager’s fingers off the levers of control.

And let’s be clear that this is not to be confused with the conditionality of the previous regime.

We reject the culture of ‘earned autonomy’, which is obsessed with the fear that you might try to run before you can walk.

As if either were possible with the chains of central government wrapped around your ankles.

The idea that local government can move forward with all of that weighing you down is absurd.

That’s why the first phase of our reform programme is about breaking your chains.

Our chosen tool for this work is the Decentralisation and Localism Bill.

Which will be introduced into Parliament during this very first session.

V: Over to you

In any case, we regard the Bill as a beginning - not an end.

Setting you free to better do the job you already do is not the limit of our ambition.

For all of the reasons I described earlier and many more besides, community-based delivery of public services is the cornerstone of public sector reform.

This will require a fundamental rethink of standard Whitehall practice.

In particular, savings that are made locally should be retained locally.

I look forward to many happy hours working with my Treasury colleagues on that one.

And also with colleagues in other departments, who have inherited systems of highly centralised control over various public services.

But that is precisely the point of my role as Minister for Decentralisation.

Those who regard it as a contradiction in terms are making a basic error.

Decentralisation isn’t about changing the way that local government works, but the way that central government works.

My job is to arrange an orderly transition of power from the centre, but not to tell you what to do with it.

For instance, I’m sure you’ve had enough of ministers who think that the way to strengthen local government is to reorganise it.

You have nothing to fear on this front from Eric Pickles, who has promised to shoot the first civil servant who so much as mentions the reorganisation of local government in his presence.

Regional government is another symptom of the old mentality.

There is, of course, a space for democratic decision-making that is larger than the local, but smaller than the national.

It’s just nothing like the model imposed upon us by the previous administration.

What, after all, can you say about a system that groups Kent with Oxfordshire and the Isle of Wight, but divides the highly strategic Thames Estuary between three different regions?

Far from redrawing the map, our plan is to put it under your control, to place the powers of regional government in your hands and to give upper tier authorities the freedom to form new partnerships that conform to real needs and identities.

This issue is emblematic of our overall approach to decentralisation - which is to enable, not prescribe.

I don’t say this to curry favour, because I don’t expect it to be universally popular.

Even within local government there are those who have grown accustomed to their limits. There is, for some, a certain comfort in being told what to do.

But there are others who refuse to wear their chains as a security blanket. I know they exist because I’ve met them, I’ve heard their ideas and felt their frustration with the status quo.

These will be the innovators.

But, as in any successful enterprise, there will be imitators too.

These are equally valuable because their role will be to see what works and replicate it, spreading best practice across the country.

The idea of reform diffusing from place to place without reference to central government might be disturbing to the old mentality, but not to me or to my colleagues.

My pledge to you is to do everything in my power to help you make it happen.