At first it was right in front of our eyes: ‘Localism’. Everywhere we turned it was there in the printed word or ministerial mantra. Now I’m starting to need binoculars to see where local has gone.
RDAs split the country into nine and that, we were told, was far too distant from the places, communities and economic areas that made sense. Now we are reduced to five regions for the slimmed down HCA plus a London Regeneration Agency the exact nature of which the Mayor is still pondering. It seems that the nine regions were unacceptable and yet their land assets can be taken over by the HCA’s fewer and larger regions which is OK. Go figure.
We were promised a pivotal role for the third sector in the new local order but councils are now telling us that we will see across the board cuts to their funding of voluntary and community groups. At the same time we can expect to see national charities and consortia wading in with their well oiled mechanisms to grab contracts for services formerly delivered by local authorities. Localism runs headlong into the Big Society. Consistency in intent turns into car crash in reality. Realistically, how can very local groups compete with the big players for economy of scale, bidding capacity or even liability insurance?
Take a look at the published list of preferred suppliers for Work Programme which will be the only significant game in town for employment support from next summer. With a couple of exceptions these are all national organisations and DWP seems happy with that. Chris Grayling reckons that this will,
‘finally put an end to the one size fits all Whitehall knows best approach’.
Well, up to a point, minister, bearing in mind that the bidding process was built on that nine region structure that you don’t like and that some of the providers of Work Programme look suspiciously familiar to those that delivered Flexible New Deal which the minister also rather disparaged. Perhaps these new main contractors will be encouraged to embrace Localism by sub-contracting to local specialist providers and getting into bed with LEPs?
This all still looks in danger of being rather top down to me but that’s OK because now we have LEPs. These drivers of local economic growth could give expert direction to the big funding streams. Perhaps every LEP should make a play to set some priorities for the use of Work Programme in their neck of the woods. While they’re at it they could try the same approach with, say, skills programmes. However, whilst colleges should consult with LEPs, that doesn’t give LEPs control of skills as part of a comprehensive local economic plan. On Structural Funds all that LEPs are being offered is seats on the ERDF Programme Monitoring Committees ie turn up twice a year to hear what Whitehall has decided to do with the money.
If LEPs are to succeed then they must have some control over the economic levers and funding streams that benefit their localities. It is vital to have local partnerships with the right and responsibility to set economic priorities and ensure effective interplay between partners and their programmes. Strong partners, especially the private sector, will only stay with LEPs if they feel that they have some real decision making powers and resources to control.
At the moment the big budgets are staying in Whitehall control while all we hear is a noise about cutting red tape, local freedoms, borrowing against uplift and the possibility of retaining local revenues. Reduced though they may be, centrally funded programmes have a certainty that local flexibilities do not and the most challenged places will struggle the most to benefit from these local freedoms. For a government professing to be radical, this seems like a half hearted and hesitant devolution.
Promises were made: are they real promises or just Lib-Dem ones? C’mon Eric et al, I’m still not feeling the local love yet.