By Public Servant Magazine
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles explains how the coalition government is setting out to rebalance power and make localism a reality
A friend of mine, a former Congressman from Wisconsin, once said: “If you don’t like the folks, don’t be in our business.” When politics becomes the preserve of people who are only interested in power, the political system starts to break down. That’s what we’ve seen in the past 13 years.
The previous government didn’t like the folks. It didn’t trust them. It always believed it knew best. It left local government toothless, community groups out in the cold and residents powerless to change anything.
The result was that voting rates plummeted, especially at local government elections. There’s no point in voting for someone who can’t change anything. There was no room for creativity or innovation in public services. You followed rules and ticked boxes. And the money followed the power, so London and the South East grew at the expense of everywhere else.
When people ask me about my priorities in government, I tell them we have three: localism, localism and localism. Because if you want to restore faith in politics, you make sure that local government is properly accountable to voters. If you want to rebuild a fragile national economy, you don’t strangle business with red tape and let bloated regional bodies make the decisions. If you want people to feel they have a stake in the future of their communities, you give them a say over what happens there.
So we are determined to rebalance power; wrest control away from bureaucrats, quangos and central departments and push it as far from Whitehall as possible. This is going to fundamentally change the nature of the constitution. It won’t be in a single action or law. It will be through dramatic actions and incremental changes. Localism is the principle that defines everything we do.
You might think all governments talk like this.
But we’re doing it. Already we’ve:
“¢ Made HIPS history and the number of homes being put up for sale has gone up by 35 per cent.
“¢ Given a lifeline to thousands of businesses in ports that had huge backdated business rates hanging over them.
“¢ Scrapped top-down housing targets and regional spatial strategies. Soon I will be announcing the full list of incentives to local authorities that will encourage development.
“¢ Put an end to unwanted “garden grabbing”, putting decisions back in local hands.
“¢ Cut ring-fencing and red tape attached to hundreds of millions pounds worth of central government grants.
Everything the coalition changed has been about giving up control, restoring the balance of power. By the time the Localism Bill is introduced later this year, we’ll have made a start to localism becoming reality. The Bill will give voters more power over local government and local spending. It will free up local government from central control, and will continue to put the community in charge of how their area develops.
What does all of this mean for those working in local government? First, if localism is going to have an effect, local government has got to be ready to seize the opportunities coming your way. Don’t wait around for us to tell you what to do. Already there are a number of councils who are stepping up: Windsor and Maidenhead, Essex, Leicestershire, North Yorkshire and Kent, to name just a few. All councils need to follow their lead and flex their muscles.
Second, localism isn’t just about giving power back to local government. It’s not a tug of war between the two of us. It’s even more important that we push power onwards, closer to people. We want to make sure people can take control and take responsibility in their street, their estate, their town. With neighbourhoods, people working together, as the basis for the big society.
There has never been a better time to be involved in local government. No one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall. There is a real opportunity for councillors today to have far more fulfilling, rewarding careers; exercising genuine choice; changing the face of neighbourhoods.
We’ve set the scene for the most radical shake-up of power for a generation. Be in no doubt, the revolution starts here.