Where next for local democracy and #WNFLI?

After a little while deliberating over the ideas and discussions that have been taking place around the inquiry, we are getting ready to start putting everything together.

In the new year we will be able to start sharing some of the fruits of this with you. We will also be running some more online engagement activity, including webchats.

What sort of thing would you like to see discussed? Let us know in the comments below.

And to keep you going, here’s Rory Stewart talking about the future of local democracy on 27th November at a Localis hosted event:

Webchat – 21st century councillors

We are running another webchat, on Thursday 13th June at 12 noon. We will be discussing what makes a 21st century councillor.

Bookmark this page and come back then to join in, or sign up for a reminder below!

See our previous webchats here.

Webchat – local councils and social media

We are running another webchat, on Thursday 9th May at 12 noon. We will be discussing the use of social media by local councils.

Bookmark this page and come back then to join in, or sign up for a reminder below!

Webchat on localism and finance

We held a webchat on Wednesday 24th at 11am for one hour about localism and finance.

Read about what we all said below! The next webchat will be on 9th May at 12pm on the topic of social media and use of digital technology in the sector.

The devolution of power

This extract from the What next for localism? pamphlet is by Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

One of the biggest challenges we face is that many people feel that politics is too distant. They think they don’t have enough power over their own lives and the places they live in, and that Government is failing to trust them. It’s one reason why town and parish councils are so important in bringing power and politics closer to people.

In our time in Government, Labour devolved power to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, and bought in a host of other constitutional reforms. This period was described by Professor Vernon Bogdanor as comparable to the eras of the Great Reform Act 1832 and the Parliament Act 1911 for the mark it left on our constitution.

We also started working on “double devolution” – the task of devolving on to the very local level power that Westminster had itself devolved through the Total Place pilot projects. These brought together a lot of the public funding in an area and locally elected politicians were given the chance to influence how it was spent. But this was, and is, unfinished business.

The Coalition has imposed the biggest cuts in funding on local councils that any of us have seen. Despite David Cameron describing local government as officially the most efficient part of the public sector, the four-year Comprehensive Spending Review Settlement will see an overall reduction in central government grant for councils of 40%, and spending power of around 25% in real terms. This is a bad deal which tries to devolve responsibility for cuts to local authorities and communities. In addition, the most deprived 10% of upper tier local authorities are having their spending power reduced by four times as much as the least deprived 10%, the Local Government Finance Bill will create uncertainty about councils’ future income, and the 10% cut to Council Tax Benefit funding will mean big increases in council tax bills for many people on low incomes.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has granted himself 126 new powers under the ‘Localism Act’, including the power to amend, repeal, revoke or apply any duty on local authorities. He insists on issuing central dictates on rubbish collection and council newspapers, he imposed mayoral referendums on places whether local people wanted them or not, and now he is threatening to remove the power to make planning decisions from local people if the speed and quality of planning decisions is not up to scratch. So much for localism !

The Government has negotiated deals with some cities to devolve powers, building on the achievements of the last Government with the multi-area agreements (MAAs) and city-region deals. I welcome these, but progress has been too narrow and too slow, and it has not extended to other cities and counties. And the biggest problem of all is the absence of a credible plan for jobs and economic growth for a national economy that is now in double-dip recession.

I think we should have a new “English Deal”, open to all local authorities and not just certain cities, in which there is a decentralisation of power from Whitehall to local communities with councils coming together to make best use of these powers. Rather than the Government poring over a list of approved councils or a map of new boundaries in deciding whom to entrust with greater powers and where, local government should decide how it wants to organise itself for the purpose of taking these on. It could be a city with a mayor, or a city with a leader, or a city region, or a county, or another combination that makes sense locally, including of course working with business.

This Deal should include a clear commitment that local authorities in all parts of England – including towns and parishes – will be given the opportunity to take back power in the interests of the communities they represent. This new deal must include devolution of powers in areas such as transport, housing, skills, and ways of boosting economic development.

And rather than trying to control services from Whitehall, the Government should take forward Labour’s Total Place approach – a much more ambitious way of bringing together all the different sources of public finance in a local area. And devolution downwards (eg neighbourhood planning) rather than centralisation upwards (the new plan to hand over local planning powers to the Planning Inspectorate) must also be part of this push to give people the chance to influence decisions where they live.

And why does all this matter?

Because one of the best ways in which we can build confidence in politics is for people to see what local government – councils and people – can do in their area to make things better. After all, local government has a great history of doing precisely that, revolutionising the lives of people in the 19th century. And since politics is all about the choices we make, we should recognise that councils are already showing that they are making different choices to protect their communities and ensure fairness.

Many Labour local authorities, from Lambeth to Liverpool, are moving to a cooperative and mutual model, leading the way in putting residents, rather than town hall officials, in charge. Other Labour councils, from Birmingham to Lewisham, are choosing to adopt a living wage. And a recent survey we did showed that many more social homes are being built in areas with Labour authorities.

This is all about showing that we can make things fairer, and that we can make things better. There is a huge well of talent, ability, ideas and passion in every community, and enabling many more decisions to be taken closer to home – a heartfelt cry from the NALC – is the best way to unleash all of these things in the interests of the places we cherish and the people who are our neighbours.

Localism, devolution and the constitution

This extract from the What next for localism? pamphlet is by Graham Allen, Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee and the Labour MP for Nottingham North

We are the most highly centralised western democracy and it is essential for our economic and social health that we continue the campaign to drive powers out of Whitehall and into the town hall. However, the process should not stop at substituting a local state for the central one. We need to empower the localities in any new constitutional settlement, to build a web of neighbourhood community and parish councils with stronger powers and independent finances. That’s part of the task that will make independence local government work.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which I chair, is the newest of all of the Parliamentary Select Committees. As a non-departmental committee we have the luxury of being able to look at the bigger picture, as well as scrutinising specific Government policy within our remit.

In November 2010 the Committee announced an inquiry to explore the possibility of writing into a formal statutory code the principles and mechanics of the relationship between central and local government in England. The Government’s commitment to localism is welcome and laudable, but unless the rights of local government are codified in statue, there is a permanent risk that power will drift back, unnoticed, towards the centre.

In 2009 the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, in their Report Balance of Power, concluded: “The power to govern in England remains too heavily centralised to be efficient or effective. Put simply, the balance of power between central and local government is currently in need of a tilt towards localities”. Evidence submitted to my Committee’s inquiry suggested that the relationship between central and local government was still unbalanced, and that a previous attempt at regulating the relationship, the 2007 Central Local Concordat, had been a failure.

The 2007 Concordat is a good example of why codification of the rights of local government is necessary. Signed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association in December 2007, the Concordat was meant to “establish a framework of principles for how central and local government work together to serve the public”. However, there was little or no awareness of the Concordat outside the Department for Communities and Local Government and so it did little to address the imbalance of power.

It has been powerfully argued that only when local government’s right to exist is enshrined in statute will it be able to negotiate equally with central government and be empowered to plan for and invigorate its communities. With this in mind the Committee sought and received a draft code for relations between central and local government to see what appetite, if any, existed for formal codification. The draft code has ten articles. Article one is reproduced below. The full draft code can be found on the committee’s website.

’1. The fundamental rights and duties of local councils herein are defined protected and entrenched. They may only be changed by the consent of Parliament as authorised firstly by an elected joint committee of both Houses, and then by the approval of both Houses of Parliament as prescribed in the amendment to the 1911 Parliament Act [enabling the second chamber to reject changes to the fundamental freedoms of local governance].’

In order to raise awareness of the draft code, the Chair of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, and I have been running a campaign for Independent Local Government. We have hosted a series of conversations across the country about our vision for a local government that has financial independence from central government. These events have told me that people want local government to have greater financial control over its own affairs and to be more than the delivery arm of central government.

At a time when ordinary people are far more satisfied with their local representatives than with central government, it makes sense that local government should be allowed, in conjunction with local people, to shape local communities.

Over the course of the Committee’s inquiry it has often been said that for codification to mean anything, a settlement would have to guarantee the unfettered right to set a local tax, and the end of capping, including capping of council tax. I applaud the recent city deals initiatives which were announced in July this year. Negotiated by the Cabinet Office and the cities themselves, each of the cities, Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Bristol and the West of England, Greater Manchester, Leeds City Region, Liverpool City Region, Nottingham, Newcastle and Sheffield City Region, has their own agreement with central government for taking more responsibility over their own affairs.

I look forward to seeing how initiatives such as the ‘earn back’ scheme —which would allow Greater Manchester to receive a portion of the additional tax revenue if their investment in local infrastructure boosts the local economy—work in practice. These current measures are a step in the right direction, but they fall short of the kind of financial independence that many, including myself, would like to see. This is why I believe that some kind of codified framework for relations between central and local government is necessary.

There are two possible methods of enshrining local government’s right to exist in statute.

The first is to codify a framework of relations between central and local government in statute in a similar way to the 1998 Scotland Act. Under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament can make primary and secondary legislation in those areas not reserved to Westminster (which are specified in schedule 5 of the Act) or protected from modification (specified in schedule 4). Devolved subjects are those which do not fall under the reserved categories, or are not otherwise outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. They include: health, education and training, local government and the police and fire services, among others. The 2012 Scotland Act devolved stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax and limited income tax raising powers.

Or more simply, we could create greater independence for local government at a stroke by amending the 1911 Parliament Act—as suggested in the citation from the draft code above—to ensure that the balance of power between central and local government could only be altered with the consent of both Houses.

This would be my preferred option.

These proposals may sound radical to some but they would not seem at all unusual in Europe. The majority of other European countries afford some protection for local government in their respective constitutions, giving local government the right of continued existence. In the United Kingdom there is no such right. The Government, if it so wished, could abolish English local government tomorrow and voters would have to wait until a General Election to voice their displeasure about it. This is not an acceptable state of affairs in a mature democracy. This is exacerbated by the asymmetric nature of devolution in the UK, in which England, which is home to 85% of the UK’s population, is heavily centralised in comparison to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

While opinion polls suggest that there is little appetite for an English Parliament, or a new tier of English regional government, our cities, our local councillors, town halls and parishes have the knowledge and experience to play a greater role in how our communities are run.

So, what is next for localism?

The Spanish model for relations between central and local government is one that I would like to see England adopt eventually. Article 149 of the Spanish Constitution sets out what powers are exclusively the preserve of central government, including criminal law, defence, immigration and macro-economic policy. Article 148 of the Spanish Constitution sets out what powers the 17 autonomous communities (ACs), may, but are not required to, assume. They include health, education, and local government organisation. The residents of these ACs affirmed that they wanted these powers by endorsing the package as a whole via a referendum, and the powers were then detailed in the constitution of each autonomous community.

In 2008 Spain’s ACs raised approximately 34% of their expenditure from local taxes on property and business, and 21% from sharing revenues on Income Tax and VAT (split equally between the AC and central government), with the remaining expenditure funded through equalisation or conditional grants from central government. I am not saying that the Spanish system is perfect, but it allows local areas and comuunities the freedom to find local solutions to local problems, rather than having solutions imposed upon them from the centre.

That can only be a good thing.

Radical localism

This extract from the What next for localism? pamphlet is by Alex Thomson, Chief Executive of the independent think-tank Localis which is dedicated to issues related to local government and localism.

The Localism Act arrived to much fanfare last year. Promoted as the “biggest transfer of power in a generation”, it certainly represented a clear statement of intent from the current government of its plans to devolve power to local communities. And given the realities of public policy, where things often seem to move at the speed of tectonic plates, many local authorities and community groups found the contents of the Act to be pleasingly empowering.

But not, a year on, we are rightly asking ‘what next?’ The fact remains that Britain is still one of the most centralised states (if not the most centralised state) in Europe, so there is plenty more work to be done. One question to ask is whether devolution is too often stopping at the top two tiers of local government.

Organisations – in this case councils – are sometimes guilty of spending a little too time arguing for greater powers and responsibilities to be devolved to them, without taking the next step of thinking what should be devolved beneath them. That said, there are plenty of examples of local authorities engaging in the drive for wider devolution with a genuine ‘can-do’ attitude.

For example, Birmingham City Council has been working on community asset transfers for a number of years, while Barnet Council has implemented an ‘adopt-astreet’ pledgebank approach to enabling communities to improve the quality of their neighbourhoods.

Another good example is the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead (RBWM), who recently launched a menu of devolved services that local parish councils can pick and choose from as they see fit. In this menu, RBWM has spelled out in clear and simple terms the services that parishes can take on, including costs and optional extras. This community friendly approach has merits – if empowerment at the neighbourhood level is to be a reality on the ground, local authorities will have to be proactive in their support for communities, while open and clear in their language and guidance.

Many local authorities have known this for years of course, but there is a major communications and facilitation role for local authorities in the coming decade if the provisions in the Localism Act are to be fruitfully used.

But, important though it is, the Localism Act is not the only influence on this agenda. The economic realities the country faces are harsh ones, and the impact on public services will be profound. Put simply, there just isn’t going to be enough money to allow things to continue as they are. And, as we argue in our latest report, which was launched last month by Oliver Letwin and Sir Merrick Cockell, the result will be that in coming years there will be a fundamental shift in the relationship between local authorities and the communities they serve, which will change how people view their public services.

Firstly, citizens and communities will need to come to terms with a different operating environment for local public service delivery, whereby they engage not just with local authorities and councillors, but all sorts of service delivery organisations from private sector organisations, to voluntary groups, and staff mutuals. A myriad of solutions across a whole range of service areas are likely to propagate in response to medium-term fiscal and innovation challenge, and this will take time for service recipients to adapt to.

Secondly, citizens and communities will have to adapt and change the nature of their relationship with the council, becoming more active participants in determining what the service priorities are for a given area. Local authorities must take a lead in forging this new relationship, fostering a mature dialogue with their local communities to get a more accurate picture of local needs, while articulating and explaining the difficult decisions that will have to be made and the additional responsibilities and levels of involvement that local people will have to assume.

However, there are barriers that will test this ‘new relationship’. Internal barriers in local authorities, such as an often muted appetite for enterprise and risk, opposition to non-traditional models of service delivery, and employee reluctance to grasp new models of ownership could prevent the full possibilities of ‘doing things differently’ being realised.

And there are external barriers too, with a key culprit being European Union procurement legislation – a bogeyman for local authority procurement teams and potential providers alike. But the good news is that the EU is currently consulting on how to reform the relevant directives to make them simpler, less administratively burdensome, and more flexible. We believe this window of opportunity offers a golden chance for the Government to make the case in the brasseries of Brussels for a fundamental reshaping of these directives.

Unless hearts and minds are won over to a different service delivery environment, combined with a simpler and easier framework for testing and agreeing new forms of service delivery, the necessary transfers of power may prove too challenging. The positive aspect in all of this is that most of the players in this all want the same thing; devolution has never been so popular a policy direction. However, there’s a long way to go before Britain sees truly radical localism in action.

Parish councils, growing in importance

This extract from the What Next for Localism? pamphlet is by Brandon Lewis MP, the Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth  and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Communities and Local Government.

This summer, London got its first parish council in decades when Westminster City Council decided to create the new community council of Queen’s Park, following the very strong campaign from local residents there.

Parish councils are living proof that small is beautiful. Civil parishes have their roots in forms of grassroots governance that go back centuries. The practice of neighbours coming together to decide, collectively, how to administer local services and improve their hometown or village, has survived plague, civil war, and industrial revolution – and remains vital to the future of our democracy.

Parishes are traditionally responsible for very local, smallscale services. These might include mowing the town’s lawns, planting gardens, maintaining public toilets or providing play facilities for children. But in fact parishes can be the focus for a much bigger debate about a neighbourhood’s identity, local people’s aspirations, and their hopes for the future. It’s natural for people to like that sense of being rooted in and connected to the place they love.

Perhaps that’s why we continue to see interest in forming new parishes; not just in rural areas, but urban areas like Queen’s Park too. In fact, what parishes represent – communities making their own choices about their neighbourhood’s future; influence being exercised at a very local level indeed – goes to the heart of the historic transfer of power, from central to local, from bureaucratic control to democratic deliberation, which this Government is seeking to achieve. That is why, as we look to the future, Government is committed to helping parishes, and other forms of neighbourhood democracy, thrive.

The Localism Act received Royal Assent in November 2011. Its provisions bring new powers and new opportunities for town and parish councils. First, the Act introduces the “general power of competence.” This enables town and parish councils which qualify to use the power the ability to do whatever local people think fit – provided that this does not clash with other laws. This is a change in the default mode, passing the initiative to councils to act in innovative and different ways. What eligible parishes choose to do with that power will be up to them. They might, for instance, decide to invest in community composting, or turn the village pub into a wi-fi hotspot – within the parameters of the law, the only limit is their imagination and ingenuity.

Second, the Act introduces the Community Right to Challenge. Local people, parishes and community groups often have bright ideas of how best to organise very localservices (such as, for example, a “community taxi” to help people who have trouble getting out and about.) In some cases, the council at the next level up, which holds the budget for such services, might be receptive to the idea, and commission the local group or parish. However, local groups’ ability to bid is dependent on the good will of the commissioning body – and those bodies have not always been ready to listen. The Community Right to Challenge enables the local group or parish to put their ideas about how they could run services differently from and better than the council, and, providing their proposals meet the right standard, trigger a tendering exercise so that they have the chance to compete to put their ideas into practice. This is important, because local services often work best when they are designed, managed and delivered at local level to respond to local needs. As the tier of local government closest to their communities, parish and town councils are well placed to know where and how local services can be provided to greater benefits for local people.

Thirdly, it provides the Community Right to Bid. This will allow community groups to stop the clock on the sale of assets of community value, giving them time to get funding and a business plan in place. Many of us have heard stories of groups finding out too late about much loved community assets being sold. Under the right to bid, town and parish councils will be able to nominate assets for listing to their local authority and can also trigger a moratorium of up to six months on the sale of listed assets.

Fourth, and perhaps most radically of all, the Act introduces neighbourhood planning, which empowers communities to come together to produce a neighbourhood plan; a neighbourhood development order or a community right to build order. Under neighbourhood planning, people are able to come together and decide where they want new homes, shops and offices should go; what that new development should look like; and which green spaces they most want to protect. This is an unprecedented opportunity for very local communities to make the planning system work for them. If successful at independent examination and at a local referendum, the neighbourhood plans have real legal weight whilst the orders automatically grant planning permission for development proposals which comply with the order. This is not mere consultation, but genuine power in the hands of local groups. Parishes are ideally placed to lead the local debate and, where they exist, are the only organisation who have the right to lead their communities in the preparation of a neighbourhood plan. Scores of parishes around the country are already developing neighbourhood plans of their own. I have no doubt that many more will want to seize the chance to articulate and give force to local people’s ambitions.

The time is ripe for local councils to play a greater role in shaping and running their communities. These rights are an important part of our plans to shift power from Whitehall to councils and beyond to communities.

A new community energy

This extract from the What Next for Localism pamphlet is by Rory Stewart MP, the Member of Parliament for Penrith and the Border in Cumbria and is Chairman of the All Party Group on Local Democracy.

Our Lake District village once seemed to symbolise the inevitable collapse of local communities. A hundred years ago, the parish contained cobblers, black-smiths, millers, and a dozen shops. All have gone. Twenty farms have been replaced by five. Gorse and bracken has invaded good pasture. Two hundred jobs in the quarry have become ten. There are few young families. Perhaps half the houses are second homes, standing empty much of the year. And the school – which had been there for four hundred years – has shut its doors. Local families died out and sold up, ‘off-comers’ moved in, and the names of residents today are now rarely those inscribed on the churchyard headstones.

It is a story repeated ten thousand times across Britain: the culmination of five centuries of destruction of the local. First, the reformation obliterated folk memories and festivals (you can still see the ruined West façade of Shap abbey on the edge of the parish). It continued as the industrial revolution tore millions from their farms, and filled secluded valleys with mines and mills (which have collapsed as suddenly as they emerged). And in the last two decades, we have witnessed the expansion of large corporations into every crevice of rural life. Shoppers are sucked from the high street shops into the super-markets; from small restaurants and pubs into chains Small dairy farms have been transformed into giants, milking a thousand cows, 24 hours a day. Our surrounding valleys are drowned in reservoirs, and our hills in Sitka spruce plantations. Large national charities elbow their way into our market towns, absorbing the funds which might have supported smaller and more local charities. And decades of regional development programs have not managed to stop the accelerating concentration of wealth and power in the SouthEast of England.

But if you see the dozens of heralds in our village lanes marshalling the half-marathon; or turn up at the village hall with seventy others for a lecture, you do not feel the death of community. Of the hundred people in the parish, perhaps eighty run community projects. In the last two years, the village hall has installed its own solar energy scheme – which now funds the hall; the parish council have generated income from a new recycling plant, laying out a new bicycle path, and playground; another group has completed a detailed archive based, local history; and yet another has transformed and kept open, in a small white building on the edge of the village, the oldest continuous public lending library in the North-West of England.

Much of this Cumbrian energy exists in other parts of  Britain – there will be equivalents of Steve, the pedigree cattle breeder, who constructed the primary school website in Bewcastle; or of Harley, the community support officer, who spent day after day in a single estate in Wigton, listening to families, and in the process reducing anti-social behaviour by seventy per cent. The hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours put into the mountain rescue, the first responders, the Air Ambulance, and the hospice movement, has parallels throughout the country. It is an energy present in large cities, as well as villages.

But in Cumbria, as elsewhere, this is not a simple story. There are fights between people angry at change, and those angry at the failure to change, which can pit half a community against another. Issues of affordable housing, of transport, of fuel poverty, continue to bedevil all rural lives. Farmers struggle with the ideology of Natural England or the national park, dairy farmers struggle with the prices set by processors, villagers struggle to oppose wind-turbine developers. Everyone fights to make the cities, understand the implication of rural isolation for education, for roads, for health. And we ourselves find it difficult to explain or understand such apparently inevitable decline. On an average income of 16,000 pounds a year Cumbria is not a wealthy area. But the energy – and increasingly the success of our communities – is remarkable. We have had villages not only saving local pubs, but building 22 house affordable housing schemes; communities not just building cycle paths, but working out how to connect the most remote valleys to superfast broadband; not only taking over tourist information centres but taking responsibility for planning policy. We have a young dairy farmer, travelling to the Leeward islands, and making connections with fair trade banana farmers. (He has also convinced Cumbrian super-markets to take Cumbrian milk, and organised a major national ministerial conference on the dairy industry). Each of these local initiatives spring from frustration at a lack of common-sense, at the failure of government to deliver. Each community has recognised what needed to be done, how to do it more cheaply and effectively, and has succeeded.

The state must now recognise this success; must respect the knowledge, the skill, the adaptability of living communities; and must get out of the way. Officials should recognise how little they understand about the history and context of particular local communities. The state must learn in the most generous and human sense to delegate: to trust that when local communities are given responsibility, they will treasure it and flourish.

There is, of course, risk to this policy – a few communities will either do nothing, or launch fantastic, extravagant schemes, some projects will collapse – and when they do, officials and critics will rage at the lack of planning and process, and demand more central control. Money may be wasted, wheels will be reinvented. But ultimately such occasional failures should be tolerated. Local projects are important but not life-threatening – they can affect broadband access but not acute medical care: local failure is rarely fatal.

So instead of trying to manage it, ever more closely, through process and regulation, we should allow communities to flourish by removing process and regulation. And we will find that for every failure, local communities will prove a dozen times, that they can deliver a local project more flexibly, more affordably, and more intelligently than any central planner. Our genius, our human genius, perhaps our British genius, is for local activity. The smaller, particular communities, of which we are part, have always been the source not just of our identity, but also of our success. Our geology is defined by local variety. Visitors from the US or Russia, accustomed to travelling for days through a single terrain, observe how quickly Britain changes from heavy fen to limestone crag, from bleached moorland to bright barley; from houses of yellow Cotswold stone, to brick. This is reflected in a human geology. Programs and initiatives will be as powerful in Perthshire, or Norfolk, or Basildon, but each will have their own local character.

Thus, we must give local communities more power – to raise revenue, and take decisions; and ensure that they are actually democratic – that the structures are clear, and healthy, which link the representatives to their public. If we can get the new structures right (we could do worse than imitate French elected mayors), we can create something, which is not simply cheaper, or better suited to our areas, but develops those deepest energies and identities, which spring from the communal, the local, and the particular. Britain’s future over the next hundred years, will be assured, if it can learn to draw on the varied skills of its seventy million people. Localism is about just this: about liberating our separate and communal energies and imagination.

Welcome to our inquiry

by Councillor Michael Chater OBE – Chairman, National Association of Local Councils

Local community

All too often in recent years the debate and narrative around community empowerment, Big Society, localism and the future of local government and public services has overlooked or merely scratched the surface of the role of local (parish and town) councils.

Whilst successive Governments have aimed – successfully in some instances, less so in others – to set out a vision, policy framework and series of tools and levers to develop the potential of our first tier of local government, there tends to be a feeling that more could be done. It is also true that sometimes local councils themselves could react and respond more dynamically to this rapidly changing policy context and to local needs and aspirations.

The National Association of Local Councils is the nationally recognised membership and support organisation representing the interests of around 9,000 local councils and their 80,000 local councillors in England. We have long supported the notion of devolution and a fundamental shift of power to councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. That’s why we so strongly hold the view that empowered local people coming together to take more responsibility for their community through local councils is a tried, tested and trusted model of grassroots neighbourhood action.

Local councils serve electorates ranging from small rural communities to large towns and small cities, are all independently elected and raise a precept (a form of council tax) from the local community. Over 15 million people live in communities served by local councils – about a third of the population – and over 200 new local councils have been created in the last 10 years or so. The most local level of our democracy works tirelessly to be the voice of and represent the local community, providing services to meet local needs and working to improve quality of life and community well being.

Put simply our sector is full of brilliant people doing brilliant things to make a difference.

Fuelled and driven by what their people and communities want, local councils take social action which makes a real difference. They can achieve outcomes for their respective very local societies – often working closely with principal authorities – in ways that are unique, diverse and effective. Whether it is helping to run the local library; working with local schools; saving the pub or Post Office; providing leisure, sports and recreation facilities; organising community galas, shows and events; working with and often providing funding to local voluntary groups; coming together with business to support economic development and prosperity; delivering community broadband solutions; local councils at their best are standard bearers for community empowerment and localism in action.

That is why I have been proud to serve them as the chairman of their national body and advocate their interests – and those of communities and people more widely – on a national stage with Government and other organisations. I’ve welcomed much of the Government’s localism agenda and more latterly their ideas around open public services. The Localism Act provides some very welcome tools for local councils in particular to respond to the needs of local people, especially the new general power of competence. Long overdue reforms to the way local councils can make payments are also hugely welcome, as are initiatives to provide support and investment at the local level to encourage the take-up of the new community rights and neighbourhood planning.

But we really must start thinking about the future of local councils, and asking what next for localism?

We need to think about whether the current policy, legislative and financial frameworks are right, and what can be done to improve them.

We need to work out what support is needed to really unlock the capacity and potential of local councils – including everyone working in and around them – and what can be done to enhance their delivery capability and productivity.

More than anything we must come up with radical new ideas to help hyper local democracy truly flourish into the future. The Localism Act does not mark the end of our ambitions for local councils, it marks the start of the next phase. This might mean new powers, reform of old ones, red tape swept away, more investment in some initiatives and less in others, radical changes in practice and procedure, much more innovation and creativity.

I’m delighted to be working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on local democracy and its Chairman Rory Stewart MP to kick start this debate through our ‘What next for localism?’ inquiry.

We want this discussion to be open, transparent and inclusive – that’s why we’ve set up this microsite.

We want to hear from everyone with an interest and passion for local democracy and neighbourhood action – be they involved locally or nationally.

We want to hear your ideas to help shape the future for local councils and help us answer the question – what next for localism?

NALC has also published a short pamphlet – available on the homepage – aimed at kicking off this debate which includes a series of essays from parliamentarians, think tanks and others sharing their ideas and thinking. I look forward to hearing your ideas too in coming weeks and months.