Does localism mean more centralization?
There appear to be a number of contradictions between Ministries within the Coalition Government as to what is meant in practice by Localism, as we saw in Chapter 4. Whilst all departments claim to be devolving responsibilities to the local level, there is considerable variation between Ministries in the definition of local. 'We know that Government departments regard Localism in very different ways' (City Economic Developer). Some central government departments are appointing people or offices to 'listen to' local concerns. The Department of Transport is one such, having identified a small number of area offices. Similarly, the Office for Civil Society has appointed Local Intelligence Teams which operate within the old regions. The most 'regionalised' approach is that of the Department for Business, Information and Skills; it has created BIS Local, which has six regional offices (compared to eight of the former regions) liaising with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and businesses and providing local intelligence but not ceding any powers. Other central government departments claim to be local in intention but aim to devolve limited authority to specific institutions rather than to the community per se. The Department for Education, for example, is devolving power to local schools some of which are 'state' schools and others 'academies' or 'free schools' controlled by their own Boards. At the same time, its central grip on the curriculum for 'state' schools is increasing and it is tightening its grip on examinations. Similarly, the Department of Health is devolving authority to GP Consortia via an NHS Commissioning Board Authority. Yet other Ministries intend to devolve responsibilities to other elected individuals or bodies or to the community. Under the Home Office model, for example, some powers are devolved to elected Police and Crime Commissioners who are directly elected locally but who are not responsible to elected local government.
While Minister Greg Clark in his report (December 2012) to Parliament on progress towards decentralisation recommended that the government publish an annual assessment of progress to be debated in parliament (Vize, 2013), his colleague Don Foster, a Department for Communities and Local Government
minister, admitted in evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee in April 2013 that this would not happen (HOC Communities and Local Government Committee, 15 April 2013). There is also budgetary evidence which, the Local Government Association (LGA) feels, raises issues about the Coalition Government's commitment to localism in practice. In an open letter Cockell and others (Cockell et al., 2013) point out that by the summer of 2013 local council funding will have been cut by 33 per cent. In the same period Whitehall departments of central government will have had average reductions of only 12 per cent. Whilst in a recession, budgetary cuts can be expected, 'localism' might reasonably be taken to imply some redistribution of available resources from the centre to the local to match the movement of service provision. Yet local authorities by this time are questioning the future viability of even their core services (Cockell, 2013).
One CEO of a LEP did tell us how good he found support from the Department for Business, Information and Skills (BIS), the Department for Transport (DfT) and DCLG, despite their different approaches. However, the DCLG, the Central Ministry principally responsible for the Localism agenda, and its Minister, Eric Pickles, were widely criticised by our interviewees: 'It's Eric Pickles lets a thousand flowers bloom, I'm not going to tell you what to do, apparently, except when I [Pickles] say it is a national priority. There isn't a defined mechanism, you know, because a defined mechanism would go against the spirit of localism'(Local Authority Mayor); 'There was a lot of politics in the Localism Bill, you know. Localism is about handing down responsibility and it was dressed up in a way that was palatable to the electorate at that particular time' (civil servant with regional responsibilities); 'All I have had to deal with from them seems either fluffy and vague or poorly advised and very poorly delivered. It is either personality driven decision-making or vague platitudes with no action at all' (local business CEO).
The DCLG was especially criticised after a number of spectacular interventions against local autonomy early on. When several local authorities announced that centrally imposed cuts would mean they could no longer offer weekly refuse collections, the DCLG at first attacked them, saying that they would not be allowed to do so. Then in June 2011, the Department backed down, admitting that in some cases such action was too expensive and made limited resources available in order to maintain collections. After this, one indignant Core City leader put it like this: 'We have a very good refuse collection. We are getting to 50 per cent recycling, we are using smaller bins, we have fortnightly collections for waste other than recycling, we have weekly collections for organics and recycling and Pickles has issued this edict that he is making this money available so that everybody can go back to weekly bin collections … It just seems absolutely bonkers.'
There followed a number of arguments with specific local authorities about their policies. For example, in April 2011 Somerset County Council introduced a charge at local community recycling centres 'in response to what the community asked us to look at in preference to closing the centres' (Read, 2011). Eric Pickles reacted by claiming that the government would not 'allow municipal bureaucrats
to introduce such backdoor bin charges for the collection or disposal of normal household waste'. However, as the local Managing Director argued, 'it is in the spirit of localism' (quoted in Read, 2011). One of our interviewees commented, 'central government cannot resist interfering in local affairs.' Similarly, in May 2011 Minister Pickles, on behalf of the government, overturned objections by the local planning authority supported by the results of a local referendum and instead supported an appeal by a company wishing to allow nuclear waste to be transported to a landfill site near Peterborough. Even the local Conservative MP objected, telling the BBC that the decision undermined the government's professed commitment to localism. 'We had a local referendum at the ballot box, not a petition, actual votes cast and 96 per cent of people were against this dump. I will be asking the Secretary of State why his department has taken this appalling decision' (Bagshaw, 2011). The trend has continued. In April 2013, the DCLG Minister presented a new proposal relating to controls over local council's publishing of publicity material which sought to limit the frequency of council publications and forbade them from council publications as vehicles for political propaganda' (Vize, 2013). This was severely criticised by the New Local Government Association (NLGA, 2013).
As one world-weary respondent told us: 'in the final analysis Government has never given a fig about local government until it needs us to get themselves elected' (local politician). This seems to reflect the general confusion as to what constitutes Localism and precisely what powers are being devolved. Indeed, in recent times the DCLG has begun referring to 'guided Localism'. Nevertheless, as an adviser to a LEP said; 'I've worked in this field for 23 years and I don't think that we have ever been more centralised than we are now. I really don't. There is more central control even though there is a rhetoric of Localism. There is more central control than there was, certainly under the last Government. They all sit up in Whitehall.'