A blueprint for local government

Anyone working in local government will have experienced the frustration that comes from too many decisions over local public services and investment being taken in Westminster and Whitehall. 

According to research by the OECD, the UK is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the developed world. Analysis from the independent Institute for Public Policy Research finds that countries with a greater level of devolution experience lower levels of regional inequality. 

All the evidence points to the fact that place-based approaches to meeting the specific needs of communities are more effective, while approaches such as the Supporting Families programme demonstrate the value of early intervention and preventative activity. 

It is therefore essential that local leaders are given the tools and resources to tailor services to local needs. Given opportunities, councils will deliver better outcomes than a centralised system characterised by micro-management and duplication. 

These were some of the central themes of the Total Place initiative, which I led back in 2009. Total Place sought to reassess the relationship between local and central government and establish a new direction for local public services and local authorities, with a range of freedoms and a new relationship with government. 

One of its central ambitions was to enable collaboration between public service providers at a local level to improve outcomes for local people, and secure better value for public money spent locally.

Much of this aligns with the LGA’s own aspirations for a White Paper for local government. This work aims to consider the benefits of place-based policy making, with the intention of developing a plan for the first King’s Speech after the General Election to secure a national-local partnership in which local government can work to its full potential for people, places and the planet. 

It is essential that the next government establishes a clear vision for the future of local government, one that is based on the public’s priorities, including councils and local communities.

It was therefore useful to discuss the practicalities of the LGA’s White Paper proposals with parliamentarians, academics and think tanks at a recent cross-party discussion, which I chaired.

Among the participants were local leaders; former Communities Secretary John Denham, who has produced a new paper calling for place-based budgeting; Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Commons’ Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee; and think tanks, such as the Institute for Government and the New Economics Foundation. 

We sought to establish what powers and responsibilities should be further devolved closer to communities and how we could collectively reignite a place-based approach to local public services. 

This discussion will help frame the LGA’s White Paper and support councils and their partners to develop a plan for the next King’s Speech which will unlock the potential of places and strengthen public services in a period of continued fiscal restraint.  

Local leaders must be able to access devolved powers and investment without the need for complex or lengthy institutional change. 

Over the last decade, national government has taken steps towards greater decentralisation, with devolution deals now covering more than 60 per cent of England. 

However, a more radical approach is needed.

Councils want genuine partnership with central government. Public services can be delivered faster, better, and more efficiently at a local level. 

Empowering councils can drive economic growth, improve people’s life opportunities, and deliver better value for money for public spending.

Lord Bichard is a crossbench Peer, and was previously Chief Executive of two councils, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, Director of the Institute for Government, and Chair of the National Audit Office. Find out more about the LGA’s White Paper work.


Spring Budget 2024

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