Devolution in Three Acts

Steve’s previous post on HRA reform got me thinking about the government’s claims to devolution and decentralisation.

It seems to me the government’s measures fall into three categories: new centralism, devolving bad news and genuine decentralisation.

New centralism:

Any issues that are high on the government’s agenda are being centralised. Gove’s school reforms take more power and influence away from elected local councils over education. Welfare equally could have been localised or at least adapted to different local circumstances. But being high on the Tory agenda they keep it to themselves. Equally, populist measures like bin collections and banning council magazines are subject to central edict.

Devolving bad news:

So local authorities lose ring fencing at a time of the worst ever local authority cuts – meaning they have the ‘power’ only to decide what to cut. Council tax benefit gets localised, at the same time the government topslices 10% of it, without reference to need. Plenty of examples of this.

Genuine Decentralisation:

The new powers that social housing landlords have over rents and tenancy lengths constitute a genuine loosening of controls from the centre. But, the most extensive of these powers will be exercised by housing associations which may be national in scope and not subject to democratic accountability – so decentralisation yes, but localism or greater democracy?. The HRA reform (I think) is probably the only straight forward and genuinely localist reform so far: it devolves real control (and control over money at that) to a local democratic body.

I am surprised they have gone ahead with the reform given how everything has been sacrificed to deficit reduction. I thought any system which delivered a surplus to the Treasury would be very likely to stay put.

Any other categories of localism I’ve missed, or things I should add?

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2 Responses to Devolution in Three Acts

  1. jenmum says:

    It remains to be seen what will come of LEPS, the new Local Enterprise Partnerships, which will replace Regional Development Agencies. These groupings of local authorities could potentially do some really interesting things on strategic housing and planning. Depends how things shake out though as it could be centralism in disguise. Worth keeping an eye on.

  2. Monimbo says:

    Don’t worry, Tony, the Treasury has got its surpluses. The settlement will be based on an estimate of the present value of future surpluses, albeit adjusted up or down a bit. The same would have applied to a settlement under Labour, however.

    Where the genuine devolution is heavily circumscribed is, as Steve pointed out, in the cap on borrowing. This not only prevents councils from borrowing to (say) build more homes, but is also inefficient as it will hold up major improvements that could more economically be done at earlier stages – and would be if assets were being managed properly.

    Even so, it has to be conceded that most councils will consider themselves to be better off out of such a stiffling and inscrutable system. And even with the cap, SOME councils will have spare resources.

    What we need of course (and this could be added to Steve’s initial list of principles that should apply to future Labour houasing policy), is as close to financial parity as possible between LA landlords and housing associations, which means – inevitably – going back to that 15 year-old argument about borrowing rules.

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