Tomorrow sees a public meeting in Westminster on the Sustainable Communities Act. The Act passed with cross-party support, which should immediately set the alarm bells ringing if you thought that it would actually change anything. Unfortunately, there are a few people who do think it will change things.
Once you cut through the hype (and it takes some cutting) the act boils down to this: councils must convene “citizens’ panels” of local residents, these panels will come up with ideas which councils and panels must try to reach agreement on, which the council then forwards to the Local Government Association, which then selects a sortlist of ideas which it puts to government. Government then has a legal duty to “co-operate and try to reach agreement” on the ideas.
This, apparently, is the “process where councils and communities can drive the actions and assistance that central government does”. Call me a pessimist, but if this is a way to “drive the actions … that central government does”, then it seems more akin to trying to steer a car by pushing on the wing mirror.
Then there is the much of the blurb that accompanies the Act’s introduction, led by the Local Works group. There is an underlying assumption in the stated aims and examples that local communities’ problems can be solved by government. Yet so many problems have probably been caused by government interfering, trying to do some good in the past, instead of letting people get on with it. Of course, it is entirely possible that a suggestion would be to eliminate a particular regulation or duty, but it is frankly unlikely that such a suggestion would get far.
I would bet that at least half of the suggestions that come forward boil down to a lack of resources – but the thorny issue of local government funding is not something that is going to be resolved any time soon, and I doubt that a seemingly esoteric debate on the intricacies of the formula grant settlement or NNDR distribution is likely to satisfy those who come up with the suggestions – rather it will reinforce the view that politicians too often come up with reasons not to do something.
The biggest problem for act will be meeting the aspirations of its cheerleaders. I suspect little will change. Cynical? Yes, but cynicism borne of over ten years in local government, much of it dealing with central government either directly or as part of a Council that has almost constantly been involved in representations to Whitehall, often on the subject of poor central government funding for local government.
Councils are expected to “opt in” to the act. It is not clear whether this boils down to a stark choice for councils: either stay out and be barred from direct contact with government, or opt in and have to operate through the bureaucracy of the LGA channel. Either way, it’s hardly set local government alight with excitement. As of today, the Local Works website lists only 69 councils (out of a potential 400+), including just 7 London Boroughs and the Welsh Assembly has not yet (again, according to Local Works) asked to be covered by the act.
The fact is that the act is well intentioned but ultimately a benign piece of legislation. Councils have always been able to “make suggestions” to central government, many engage in public consultation. Most good ideas in local government started “on the ground”. All the act does is introduce some positive words into the process, along with a lot of new bureaucratic machinery. Government must “try to reach agreement”, which translates in practice to “try to bury any idea the Treasury doesn’t like the look of”. I hate to say it, but the supporters of the act do seem to have rose-tinted view of how government works, but I’m not going to condemn them for having some idealism and a can-do attitude.
If there is one big plus point of the Act, it is the requirement on government to publish local spending reports – analyses of how much public money is being spent in total in a particular area. It is a sad fact that government has become so large and unwieldy that it has taken years of badgering to get central government to answer the simple question “how much taxpayers’ money is being spent in [area]?”