Monday, 19 December 2011

The Localism Act — Santa or Scrooge?

I’ve opened the shiny present in the capacious Christmas sack of the Localism Act marked ‘new rights and powers for local communities’, and had a horrid disappointment.  It rattled enticingly, but what has fallen out of it strikes me as having greatly more potential to disempower than to empower.  The year’s labour of the Elves over the Bill has, I fear, been wasted.  It’s time to move on.

I’m not alone in thinking that the wrappings in the sack cover sawdust, that the reindeer are made of papier-mâché and gallop on the spot in an empty department store window.  MPs who have looked carefully at the matter now conclude that there is ‘little evidence to suggest that there is a coherent Big Society policy agenda which is understood by Whitehall’ (see the 15th December report of the Commons Public Administration Committee).

So what’s the matter with it, or me?  Let’s make the case against the windy rhetoric of Ministers by going through the ‘New rights and powers for communities’ section in A plain English guide to the Localism Act, in plain English.

Community right to challenge
This is a right for the VCS, parish councils and local authority employees to ‘express an interest in taking over the running of a local authority service’.  If the authority accepts the challenge, it runs a procurement exercise in which the challenger can bid.

And which category of challenger is the Cabinet Office putting resources into supporting?  It launched the Mutuals Information Service on 5th December.  The MIS is for local government folk who feel up to the huge challenge of mounting a management buy-out (sorry, ‘spinout’ is the preferred jargon) for their service, and then keeping it going.  The Cabinet Office has appointed a consortium led by PA Consulting with a fund of £10M, and there’s a group of worthies to help dress things up.  What are Uncles Francis and Nick doing to support VCS organisations to succeed in the open procurement process?  Pass.

Let’s hope Locality’s national Community Contracting Capability Service, which is ‘under development’, comes up with some goods; but it seems a bit late, already.  And while there are existing models which can create consortia of voluntary organisations to bid for public sector contracts, like Well UK for example, it’s hard to see community groups exercising this right in any role other than stalking horse.  Is that what the Big Society is about?

Community right to bid (assets of community value)
Back in the day we talked about the ‘right to buy’.  Some people still do.  How wrong they are.  The right here is to bid on the open market for a community asset, once it has made it onto a new ‘list of assets of community value’.  So now, wrapped up in the red tape of a laborious new piece of bureaucracy got together somehow by a severely under-resourced local authority, is the right not to be able to afford to buy your Community Centre.  Locality’s view (Feb 11) was, rightly, that ‘for assets of community value in public or third sector hands there should be a right of first refusal for community groups’, and warned of possible disaster if there was not.  So disaster on that front it potentially remains.  

In case this sounds like a jeremiad, just a reminder that I’m looking on the dark side of one part of the Localism Act, and with this ‘right’ at least there is a bright side.  The fight for the right to bid for community assets in private hands was well fought, and is a real step forward.  I hope they’ll be raising a glass to it in my old boozer the Beauchamp Arms in Dymock, Gloucestershire, bought by the Parish Council to keep it going back in the 1990’s.

There are more presents in the ‘New rights and powers for communities’ Christmas parcel in A plain English guide to the Localism Act:

Right to approve or veto excessive council tax increases
As recently as 8th December a DCLG press release trumpeted that this was ‘hailed by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles today as a radical extension of direct democracy’.  If you say so, Uncle Eric, but it feels more like an ingenious way of outsourcing rate-capping to me. 

Transparency of council officials’ pay
See above.

Getting rid of fines and charges for rubbish collection
I’m beginning to think that the ‘New rights and powers for communities’ part of the Act has been used as a dump for the bits they had no other home for.

It’s all my fault, I’m sure, for being so gloomy and ungrateful: serve me right for not waiting until Christmas Day to open the present.  I do believe localism’s Christmas will come; it just isn’t in this parcel.  Try this one instead—a host of case studies of how people have been doing these things in the South West for years.

The ground is shifting, and I wonder if people are even asking the right questions yet: how DO you influence Serco, for example?  There are ways, and some really interesting things to do and to get involved with:  Community Budgets, for one, on which Locality has written a useful briefing.  Let’s start talking about them in the New Year.

I’d like end with a song in my heart—join me in singing along with this seasonal number for Uncles Eric, Francis, Nick and all at the Big Society.

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