Invited written evidence to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

Abstract

Constitutional arrangements in parts of the UK have been transformed by political devolution, but they have evolved piecemeal and insufficient attention has been given to the governance of England in the process. Government in the UK remains highly centralised despite past and present government rhetoric around decentralisation, local discretion and enhanced fiscal autonomy. The Draft Code for Central and Local Government offers an avenue to address this imbalance and the Committee’s work on this issue is welcome. However, in the context of the enduring ‘Westminster Model’ and deep-rooted departmental cultures that promote centralism, the following issues are observed:
1. The ‘explanatory note’ suggests that the feasibility of codification rests on political and ideological grounds and on the ‘willingness of the centre to accommodate a new constitutional settlement’. But, how might this be enacted systematically across Whitehall departments? Is there any indication of a drastic change in mood music across the civil service or amongst politicians that makes this prospect any more feasible than past attempts to promote local autonomy and discretion, e.g. regionalism?

2. The suggestion that codifying the relationship between central and local government would ‘sit well with the government’s localism and Big Society agenda’ is plausible. Nonetheless, ‘localism’ means different things to individual government departments. Indeed, there is no standard interpretation of localism in Whitehall and considerable differentiation remains in terms of emerging inter-governmental relations and enthusiasm for fiscal and political autonomy at a local level.

3. Local discretion will lead to variation is policy design, delivery and evaluation. One view is that, during the last government, Whitehall struggled to deal with the variation between eight standard English regions in any depth. Whether it has the capacity or inclination to develop meaningful dialogues with over 300 Local Authorities remains untested.

4. The emphasis on ‘negotiation’ has the potential to result in policy delays, although the benefits in terms of more tailored and evidence based policy is acknowledged. How might this impact on the ability of central and local structures to promote joint working across policy areas/sectors and departmental activities? So-called ‘joining-up’ remains a considerable challenge and synchronising investment is a huge task. Is there evidence to suggest that a codified relationship would help or hinder this process?

5. An interesting reference is made in the explanatory note about ‘local authorities being willing to use new found freedoms’. Indeed, there are huge variations in local governance capacity, expertise and slack resources. While some may rise to the challenge, others will lack the leadership and resources to take advantage. What support might be provided to encourage all councils to exercise their rights and who might provide it? In the absence of support a two tier system of local authority might emerge between those ‘who can’ and those ‘who can’t’.

6. Variation between localities has the potential to enhance place based competition and public perceptions of a ‘post code lottery’ in service delivery. While local autonomy and discretion is desirable there is a danger that these outcomes could undermine a stable constitutional settlement as citizens in ‘less buoyant’ areas question economic and social provisions.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHouse of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
Subtitle of host publicationProspects for Codifying the Relationship Between Central and Local Government
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherHouse of Commons: London
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jan 2013

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    Ayres, S. (2013). Invited written evidence to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government. In House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee : Prospects for Codifying the Relationship Between Central and Local Government [LG64] House of Commons: London.