Abigail Melville: Is this our moment for a real power shift?


By Abigail Melville
Associate, the RSA.

Forces seem to be aligning to create an opportunity for the next Government to deliver the biggest shift of power for a generation. Various important pieces of the jigsaw are coming together and broadly pushing in the same direction.

First, there is growing consensus in the policy community that a top down welfare state is not working. This is leading to a focus on early intervention and a demand for powers and financial frameworks to make up-front investment possible to drive change and improve outcomes across systems.

Second, with austerity still biting there is a growing realisation that we cannot afford ever increasing demand for public services. For more forward thinking public leaders this is combined with a desire to push power and responsibility back into civic society, and an understanding that improving social and economic outcomes requires locally developed solutions that build networks of social capital.

Third, there is an emerging consensus around some of the solutions with some big announcements and policy reviews due in the next few months.:

  • The final Report of Labour’s Local Government Taskforce to be launched at the LGA Conference in July by Ed Milliband will set out a twin track deal for a whole basket of devolved powers and resources tied to creating improved outcomes.

I am told the deal for all authorities will include: social care in your own home; young people and jobs (including devolving skills agencies budgets); crime and safety (linked back to effective local crime partnerships and getting rid of Commissioners); excluded families (building on the troubled families model with additional investment); and giving every child the best start (through transformed multi-use sure start centres and some accountability for schools).

The more radical devolution will give strategic commissioning responsibilities to combined authorities based on an outcome led bid. Bids could include: a health and social care single budget based on a joint health strategy for the area; the work programme; and the probation service (currently being tendered), building on successes of local justice rehabilitation pilots.

  • On growth and regions, there is the report of the Adonis Review in July and the RSA’s City Growth Commission in the autumn, which will make the case for city regions to have strategic and infrastructure powers to boost growth.

Councils need to make the case for sub-regional, local economic growth strategies that network employers, job-seekers and skills providers more effectively together. This local delivery should be part of any strategic bid to commission the work programme.

  • Then there is the recently announced LGA/CIPFA Commission on Local Government Finance, which may well recommend a substantial shift in the local tax base so resources are clearly raised and spent locally, and possibly an end to equalisation through the grant system (which makes the whole process, and the political decisions about allocation, so obscure and secretive).

Which brings me to the fourth opportunity. Our CCIN Chair Jim McMahon has just taken over Leadership of the LGA Labour Group which as the largest party makes him Leader of the LGA. Jim’s leadership creates new opportunities to link up these various strands into a powerful case for change.

So how do we seize these opportunities?

First, this cannot be a Party political agenda. Labour may be making some running from opposition but there are many Conservative and Liberal Democrat Politicians who support a shift of power and resources to the local. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the British State for the better. It is too important to founder on party divisions. We must build a cross-party platform for change.

Second, we must make sure the different elements of the picture join up and are mutually reinforcing. As policies appear we need to test them against each other. Crucially we must show politicians how they join up. I would love us to create a shared programme of change which is powerful, easy to understand and shows clear benefits for the public and get it into the hands of every candidate standing at the next general election.

Third, we must work out the implementation. Change will not happen without the right behaviours, cultures and skills, but also the right information. How do we hold places to account for the outcomes they say they will deliver without open and transparent information? The accountability and public scrutiny of these new systems will be crucial to the trust the public has as well as their effectiveness.

This is a big agenda between now and May. Can we do it?

Abigail Melville is the RSA’s CCIN lead.