7th January 2014
As regular readers of our blog will know we have recently embarked on a small mini-series of posts about the relationship between local and central government and how they can be improved. Before Christmas we discussed secondments, internet dating, the possible abolition of the DCLG the Barnett formula, safe spaces for discussion, the Public Sector Transformation Network and sharing the policy making process.
It’s quite a list and ranges from the cultural elements we believe are absolutely crucial to more structural issues that are far more difficult to fix. Today, we wanted to address an issue which is a combination of both but has become so entrenched that it is basically a structural issue now; that of trust between the sectors.
Simply put, central government does not really trust local government to deliver services in the interests of the populations it serves and local government does not trust central government to stop interfering in its work. In the first instance this leads to central government delivering services that should really be delivered locally and interfering in those services that have already been passed to local authorities. Examples of the latter are not difficult to come by.
Central government, in these cases through the DCLG, is constantly interfering in issues that really should have nothing to do with them. That is why Eric Pickles, as Secretary of State, can feel justified in launching new guidance on issues such as regularity of bin collections (this guidance had money attached), parking in town centres and local authority magazines to name but three high profile examples. What is striking about this is that it is not just local government who seem to be untrusted but also the local populations who vote for these local councils. If town centre parking or bin collections or even council newspapers are such a problem surely the local people will just ‘vote the bums out’ without the intervention of Mr Pickles or his predecessors?
And yet, just as central government doesn’t trust local government it also doesn’t trust local people to either vote out their local council if they disagree with them OR not vote out the national government for the sins of their local council.
Likewise, central government doesn’t trust local authorities to take on the delivery of more services.
The Local Government Association does a very good job of identifying areas where responsibility for the delivery of services could more effectively be delivered at the local level but rarely are these opportunities embraced by Government. And where local authorities are passed services to deliver, such as the local authority welfare assistance schemes, this is often as a precursor for the Government cutting those programmes in some way.
Indeed, this scheme was passed across with a 10% cut already built into it and if this reporting from Patrick Butler is accurate, and as he is a top notch journalist in this field let’s assume he’s right, then the Government are planning to abolish the funding altogether.
Which leads us to the last problem; local authorities don’t trust central government. Some of this is justified, as per the above example, but some of it is just a perception that central government is always out to get local government and thus shouldn’t be trusted. This probably stems from the 1980s and is probably justifiable in that context but for central and local government to work better together local government needs to trust central government.
We need to be enthusiastic supporters of each government’s ‘localism’ agenda (even if we don’t fully believe them), committed enthusiasts for the opportunities available within the latest government scheme and willing participants in any and all new experiments developed from central government. We need to trust that the government is serious and help them achieve their aims by working together.
Taken together, this is a call for something hard to define and even harder to deliver; trust. Central government needs to trust local government; local government needs to trust central government; both of us need to trust the voters to make sensible decisions and vote rationally.
It’s a lot to ask and I recognise that real trust is earned over a period of time but without developing real trust and mutual respect I fear the barriers that divide us may never be properly broken down. However, now, at the start of a new year, and 18 months before a general election, is just the time to start.