"Losing a department in it's own right would be a blow for local government, but hardly unexpected. A post on the We Love Local Government blog this week spells out how councils have been co-conspirator in their own political demise, however unintentionally.
"Government, DCLG and Whitehall are all bodies that are treated with a certain amount of scepticism in local government circles," writes Gareth Young. "I often feel that despite spending a lot of time thinking and writing about local government and central government policy impacts upon us I know relatively little about civil servants or Whitehall itself. Perhaps this is just my failing but I feel that it is a wider issue."
Yes, Gareth. It is. And that is why coalition government feels it has nothing to fear – from outside or within – if it chooses to dismantle the very structures that preserve local government within our national democracy."
It is worth saying that whilst I understand Hannah Fearn's desire to generate a debate on this topic I genuinely don't believe that councils have been co-conspirators in their own demise, intentionally or otherwise. Nor did our piece suggest that. Indeed, to read the post we/I wrote and draw that conclusion misunderstands what we were trying to achieve.
However, as we were quoted in the debate we thought we'd add a post about the DCLG to our planned series about central - local relations and how we can improve them. Drawing on the above there are two questions to ask:
Firstly, have local authorities been co-conspirators in their own demise and secondly would the abolition of the DCLG be a good or bad thing.
My first response upon reading the piece was instant disagreement; after all to blame local councils for the DCLG's dysfunction seemed a bit rich and a little like blaming the victim. From where I sit the DCLG (politically) has spent the last 3 years systematically criticising local authorities and using them as the 'other' in an attempt to show that the Government are on the side of the general public. Meanwhile, ministers in that department have presided over a unprecedented cut to local authority budgets (disproportionate to those faced by other departments) and done relatively little to set a positive future agenda for local government.
So what of local government's role in this?
Are we to blame for the DCLG's current tenuous position? I think the answer is probably yes but not necessarily for the reasons Hannah mentions. It's not that we, as a sector, have abandoned our sponsor department but rather that we have been both too submissive to Government excesses and too passive about advocating for local government. When this happens the Government may start to underestimate the importance of a specific department to look after local interests; especially when the Ministers in that department are so keen to underplay it's importance at budget time.
The submissive comment is both a criticism and a complement. Looking at the scale of what local authorities have been asked to do over the past few years I am amazed by the performance of local government as a whole. Yet, the 'get on with it' attitude of local government means that we haven't engaged in that national policy making in quite the same way. Instead of manning the barricades we've generally fought hard to make the most of our position. This is admirable but doesn't argue for the ongoing relevance of the department making the cuts.
The latter comment just says what you already know; if the public aren't fighting for the services you provide the politicians won't feel the need to stand up for them. Eric Pickles, a consummate politician if there ever was one, spotted that early and he's yet to be proven wrong.
So what of the 'do we need the DCLG' question? In local authorities we often discuss, albeit on a much smaller scale, a similar question as it relates to departmental structures and the same answer seems to apply; structures can make a difference but they aren't determinant. What matters most is the people involved and the practical application of whatever model you decide to implement. The same surely applies to Whitehall. Local authorities need people in central government to take local government seriously and work with us; indeed on the flip side central government needs people who link into local government in order to deliver their priorities. But, local government doesn't necessarily need a specific department to provide this.
The counter to this is that we, local government, need a ministerial voice around the cabinet table. Indeed, Hannah described the DCLG as "the very structures that preserve local government within our national democracy."
Perhaps she is right but, back to the argument about people overvaluing structures over actual activity, the current DCLG doesn't do much to show that it provides that role. If the civil servants, and the functions they do, were elsewhere do we really think the situation would be worse?
On the welovelocalgovernment podcast (set to return after a brief baby related break) we do a fairly regular feature on the announcements and policy of the DCLG and we often have fortnights where we genuinely find it difficult to find anything interesting to talk about (save Eric Pickles pronouncements on things). Indeed, outside of planning and housing (and parking, bins and flags when Eric is speaking and these are rarely in the form of policy) there's been relatively little to talk about. Indeed, that might be why, and here comes a generalisation, the DCLG twitter feed seems to predominantly feature announcements of pubs being designated as community assets (another example of DCLG policy I should have mentioned above).
I don't have the historical comparison that some of my colleagues do but I get the feeling that whilst the DCLG has had more policy in the past that doesn't mean that the sector has had a single voice in government to work with or that the DCLG has historically been that powerful. Local Area Agreements, to take but one example of the former, were negotiated with the Treasury (who gave us the money) and changes in social care to comment on the latter have been worked out with the Department of Health (who also have control of the money).
Would the loss of the DCLG damage local government? Initially at least, almost certainly. Do I believe that other structures could be put in place that could do the role that the DCLG currently does? Yes. Do either of those models guarantee better central - local relations? Probably not.
We argued last week that the barriers between the two are probably more cultural than structural and we still believe that. The discussion about the DCLG is important, as is the possibility of rebalancing the constitutional position of local government, but none of this will work unless there is a cultural shift by the people working in and around the two sectors.
If this discussion proves nothing else it is that the debate about relations between local and central is a live one that could do with a bit of thinking about. We intend to continue trying to do that here, albeit in our relatively small scale way, over the next few weeks; and if you have an idea we'd love to hear from you.