Local devolution: an urgent strategic priority

Sheffield Town Hall

Good public services are at the heart of any progressive strategy for a socially just future. Yet they are facing significant challenges to the impact they can have: demand pressures are growing while resources are diminishing. Without reform they will become unviable.

The Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s Final Report, launched today, takes the lessons from where locally led innovations are more effective and efficient than nationally designed approaches. It applies these to a new strategy for the next Labour government to devolve power and resources currently held at the centre, to free up local areas to be more responsive to people’s needs. People-powered public services would create more impact and value by working with people as active citizens rather than treating them as passive consumers, mobilising local energy, relationships and networks for better results.

We set out how an outcomes-driven New English Deal would devolve power and resources to deliver five pledges to people that will make their lives better:

To provide people with the care they need to live independently, we propose that local partners should be given greater powers to lead health and care integration around the whole person.

To give every young person the opportunity to get a decent job, we recommend budgets for further education and skills should be devolved to city or county regions to commission provision better linked to the identified needs of learners and local labour markets. We also set out how a youth transitions service combining Jobcentre Plus and local provision would create a better support to get unemployed under-21-year-olds into employment.

To increase community safety and reduce crime, we think local accountability of policing should be strengthened by replacing police and crime commissioners with collective policing boards composed of council leaders more closely representative of communities, and more powers to set policing priorities in line with those of communities.

To help excluded families to overcome challenges for good, we outline how a more ambitious programme of support led locally, combined with a pooled budget topsliced from Whitehall departments, could create more sustainable outcomes.

To give every child a good start in life, we call for a renewal of the Sure Start programme with local services having a duty to cooperate around children’s centres and more powers for local authorities to broker childcare provision. And to ensure high standards and constant improvement across all schools, we set out how strong democratic accountability will be vital to the effectiveness of proposed new directors of schools standards.

Finally, the previous patchy, incremental pace of previous reforms should be turned upside-down so that devolution goes at the speed of the quickest. Where local authorities have a strong track record and effective statutory governance arrangements, they should take on further powers and funding to tackle high-cost, complex demand pressures such as long-term unemployment or reoffending, or take forward full health and social care integration. This will mean resources across a place can be better focused to produce more impact – scale for commissioning combined with local delivery.

By devolving power and resources to meet these pledges, this will devolve responsibility to local government to be held accountable for outcomes. This would revitalise local democracy: we advocate good local governance that empowers people, innovates and opens up. We propose new powerful independent local public accounts committees led by councillors that can scrutinise spending across all local public services including health, employment and education, to create more visible local accountability for public money.

For two-tier areas like my own in Stevenage, we propose joint committees between districts and the county: each tier would retain their separate areas of responsibility but this would enable decisions over public services that impact each other like social care and housing to be better coordinated. And we set out a robust approach to driving up performance in councils and increase transparency, with intervention where councils are coasting or failing to deliver.

We are clear that devolution should not stop at the town hall – power should be dispersed throughout communities and shared with people so that they are able to take responsibility for their own outcomes. We set out how councillors should be better supported to be active community champions through a new College of Local Representation and how new digital technology can create new opportunities for people to shape services and get involved.

To lock these reforms in we set out a clear implementation plan for a new government so that we see a behavioural and cultural shift at the centre, as well as a practical one that devolves resources. This should include a review of capacity at Whitehall once reforms are pursued to create a more strategic centre, with expertise itself also devolved to local areas.

The Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s report calls for a new approach to public services, genuinely built with people and around places. This is not a ‘nice to have’. For those of us who wish to see good public services playing a meaningful role in the pursuit of social justice this is an urgent strategic priority.

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Sharon Taylor is leader of Stevenage borough council and co-chair of the Local Government Innovation taskforce. She tweets @SharonStevenage

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  • David Spector

    And the difference between this and the present government’s plans for the NHS is…