Paul Wheeler 18 July 2007

A marriage made in heaven?

A marriage made in heaven? image

Well it¹s certainly all change at the Department of Communities and Local Government. With a former councillor as a secretary of state and a well connected local government minister we have a formidable team. Plus a new and dynamic chairman of the LGA with a clear mandate and three year term.

So, as always, we should start on a positive note even when some of the recent announcements are not quite fully formed. Let¹s take two examples.

Many people would acknowledge a 'democratic deficit' when it comes to some of the regional agencies and government quangos.

So the announcement of regional 'select committees' to scrutinise the performance of these organisations is welcome. However to make these 'select committees' representative we should also see equal numbers of local councillors who are chairs of scrutiny on them.

That really would be a powerful combination of political and local knowledge. It would also help if the committees met in their regions rather than becoming part of the crowded Westminster Village.

Then there's the suggestion for participatory or 'people's budgets' announced by Hazel Blears at the LGA conference. The idea is based on how communities, often poor, in Brazil were able to obtain much greater influence over the level of public services in their localities.

There is great potential here but it should not be confined to the activities and budgets of local councils. That¹s not out of a sense of territory but more a reality that most ie, more than 90% of local public services are not contained within the budget¹s of local councils.

The real opportunity is how people can gain a greater control over the priorities of all public spending in their localities and, I suspect, especially policing, employment and primary care provision. It would also be good for many of these 'poorer communities' to have some control on the grants to the voluntary sector obtained on their behalf.

There is a certain symmetry here between these proposals and the aspirations of the Sustainable Communities Bill. Both want the 'local state' to be responsive to local views and acknowledge that for this to happen there has to be a transfer of power and knowledge. It would be a interesting example of 'big tent' politics for a Labour secretary of state to take some of the best ideas from a Private Member¹s Bill sponsored by a Conservative MP.

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum

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