Supercharged localism?

11 December 2013, Blog

Before the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives went into coalition in 2010, one area of commonality you could probably identify in their politics was a more localist tendency. This agenda of localism has always set the two parties apart from their traditionally more centralist colleagues in the Labour party.

Has this localism manifested itself into policy under the Coalition Government though? Well, sort of.

Cast your eye over the Coalition’s achievements over the past few years and you’ll be drawn to a series of structural changes that have, in a way, devolved power to a more local level.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs), Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) and a raft of other acronyms besides. All have taken on responsibility for areas of government policy customarily in the gift of a central department.

But are they truly local? Yes and no, is probably the answer. They’re certainly smaller arrangements than the top down leviathan of years gone by, but “grassroots led” they are not.

Take Police and Crime Commissioners as one example. They are locally elected but they cover significant swathes of territory and diverse communities, more so than your average MP. As an example, the PCC for South Wales, a former Government Minister, covers some deprived inner city communities and huge tracts of rural land – a lot of issues for one commissioner to be across.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are another example. Though created to work with and represent local businesses at a local level, there are only 39 of them – not that many given the number of businesses in England. Therefore each one represents a broad church of businesses with a diverse array of interests. Some believe they are too broad and, due to a lack of powers, relatively directionless.

The All Parliamentary Group on Local Growth (a cross party group of interested MPs and Peers) believe they could do with upping their game, and could do with a metaphorical shot in the arm from Government. Lord Heseltine, an advocate of LEPs, agrees.

Author of No Stone Unturned (October 2012), a detailed look at how to drive growth for local businesses in England, Heseltine is confident that LEPs are destined to survive the 2015 election – regardless of who is in power.

The former Deputy Prime Minister has concluded that LEPs need more money and power. LEPs received some of this money in the form of the Single Local Growth Fund but the power has been less forthcoming.

Also of importance, the APPG called for a manifesto commitment from the three parties to keeping LEPs beyond 2015. Lord Heseltine seemed relaxed about such a recommendation, confident that even a Labour government would be reticent to shake up the system again.

Theresa May’s allusions to increasing the powers of PCCs – to include prisons and probation – only serve to drive forward the localism agenda. Even the Kings Fund, a respected health policy thinktank, has given Health and Wellbeing Boards the thumbs up.

I for one think that LEPs are here to stay. Lord Heseltine acknowledged that if Labour win the next election they will in all likelihood commit to doing LEPs “better.” Labour have also recently committed to “reforming” PCCs – notice not do away with them.

Taken together, these developments point to the fact that pseudo-localism is here for the foreseeable.  How best to “supercharge” that localism may be one of the next battlegrounds for the 2015 election.

James Hargrave is an Account Manager at JBP PR & Parliamentary affairs. A graduate in Modern History and Politics James joined JBP in October 2012 and works across a range of clients providing political analysis and communications strategies.

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