Local Communities — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 1:00 pm, 1st July 2010

My Lords, I wish to make a few general remarks about the philosophical approach that we are discussing today and then raise a few specific issues.

Devolving power to local communities has always been at the heart of the Liberal approach to government, but it has generally been the opposite approach to that adopted by successive Westminster Governments. I hope therefore that there will now be a real and long-lasting change in approach with the recent change in Government.

The coalition agreement says that it is,

"time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people".

The agreement commits the new Government to promoting decentralisation and democratic engagement, ending, it says,

"the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals".

The question is how to turn this rhetoric into reality.

In a recent speech entitled "The Big Society: moving from romanticism to reality", the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Associations, Stephen Bubb, argued that there are two planks underpinning the approach to what is now called the "big society". The first, he said, is,

"the drive to ensure a bigger role for civil society and to encourage more citizen involvement and community action".

The second is,

"the drive to diversify public service delivery, promote consumerism and to ramp up third sector provision of more citizen focused services".

Speaking on behalf of many voluntary organisations, I believe that he was right to say that the "smart, strategic state" of which the Prime Minister has spoken will need a Government who work in genuine partnership with that sector and with local government in order to address the challenges ahead, not a Government who simply retrench and leave others to pick up the pieces.

Our debate today concerns fundamental issues about the role of the state. That issue has been at the heart of the divide between the major parties' philosophies for as long as they have existed. In describing my own view and, I believe, generally the Liberal Democrat view of the role of the state, I sometimes quote a great liberal politician, Mario Cuomo, a former Governor of New York. He said that we demand only the government that we need-but we also demand all the government that we need. He was speaking at a time when the values espoused by leaders like Ronald Reagan and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, were considered hostile to almost any action by the state, and when it was once famously claimed that there was no such thing as society. The coalition agreement is a complete rejection of that view. We have moved on a great deal if the commitment to what is being called the big society is genuine, and there may now be more consensus in the major parties about achieving the culture change that I hope really underpins it.

I turn to some specific issues-first, money. If you want to look at where power lies, you have to look at where there is control over revenue-raising and spending decisions. When you look at our system of local government today, you see that currently just a quarter of the money spent locally is raised locally. Without control over the major tax-raising and spending decisions there is little local power, so I hope that national controls over council tax levels will be only very temporary and that the review of local government finance contained in the coalition agreement will address the issue of devolving financial responsibility, as well as creating a system for paying for local services based more on ability to pay than the present council tax system is.

I know that the Local Government Association is keen to work now with central government on improving local delivery and getting better value for money by looking at area-based budgeting that could reduce the cost of unnecessary bureaucracy, saving money and freeing up resources for what we all now call "front-line services".

Secondly, there is the issue of making councils more accountable and representative, which will be even more important if they are more financially autonomous. It seems to me that the real governance issue for many councils is that they have simply become one-party states for long periods of time. This will no longer generally be the case in Scottish local authorities, where a system of proportional representation has been introduced. If we want local democracy, we must make local councils more representative of the people they serve, and that means giving them a voting system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

The third issue is the devolution of power from local councils to neighbourhoods. It seems to me that the logical conclusion of moves to allow community organisations to bid to run local services may also be to allow local communities to do so through electing neighbourhood councils, particularly in many urban areas where the council may seem remote and unresponsive.

Fourthly, giving councils a general power of competence is an essential aspect of delivering the localism agenda. Councils need to be able to offer innovative services tailored to local needs, doing what they consider would benefit their area and the people who live there.

Lastly, education is of course one of the most important locally delivered services. While accepting that there can be benefits in reducing some of the barriers to people who want to establish new schools and reducing the level of government-imposed regulation on all schools, we must also ensure that the proper role of the state in safeguarding children's health and welfare is maintained. We should recognise that the free-school model is unlikely to be a form of education for many children, that principles of equality of opportunity must always be preserved and therefore that the state, at an appropriate level, must still be able to play its part in ensuring that lessons of best practice learned in schools over many years continue to be learned in the decades ahead.