I am a localist because I believe that greater localism is not just a nice idea but an essential part of ensuring that we have decent public services in years to come. So obviously I’m delighted that localism has risen up the political agenda recently. But I temper my optimism with a dash of mildly cynical realism about how far and how quickly devolution of power in England will go.
The good news is that there’s a platform to build on, with plenty of good things happening since 2010 in public health, planning, city deals, the General Power of Competence etc. A clear direction of travel for policy has been set, and the political aftershocks of the Scottish Referendum will hopefully only increase the pace.
However it would be wrong to assume that English local government will automatically get devo max just because the Scots have it – the Whitehall machine hasn’t changed overnight. Scotland built the case for devolution over a number of years. Because that’s how long it took to generate the political momentum to push for change, so it won’t happen overnight for England. But the General Election could be crucial.
So how to get localism into the parties’ manifestos? Big upheaval constitutional change localism sadly lacks doorstep appeal, so devolutionary measures will have to fit with parties’ wider narratives. And that, in turn, is likely to mean highlighting the strengths of local government – its ability to do things better and, particularly, cheaper than a centralised state; making savings above and beyond those available within existing silos. Which is where I think the LGA’s 100 days document is striking the right notes.
Unless the polls shift substantially, the result of the next election looks likely to be pretty messy; the chances are that whoever is in power won’t have much of a majority (if any), which could make for a relatively weak government. But such a result could be a massive opportunity for local government, if the sector can make the case for being uniquely placed to help deliver better for less.