I wrote back in March about the way in which, despite efforts to decentralise autonomy to the local level and to inspire and empower citizens to get involved in local politics, Central Government seems reluctant to ‘let go’ and to give local authorities a free rein in relation to the exercise of local powers. New neighbourhood planning measures provided suitable example.
On a slightly different aspect of local autonomy, news comes this week that Communities and Local Government Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, has been catching up on the way in which councils are using the General Power of Competence (GPC), introduced by the Localism Act 2011 as a replacement to the well-being power.
The Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), Sir Merrick Cockell, notes that “the GPC is giving councils greater freedom and confidence to think outside the box, be innovative and develop new services and partnerships … However, despite the impressive examples of GPC use … it remains limited by constraints set by central government. Easing those restrictions would certainly help encourage others to unlocking the potential of using it.” Such restrictions include a limitation on the number of company structures permitted; charges made under the GPC only being made for discretionary services which recover costs but which do not generate profit or surplus; and a restriction to the effect that the GPC does not extend the ability of councils to create byelaws or undertake enforcement.
In a sense, then, it’s the same story – the government trying its utmost to push power down to the local level and to encourage councils to take the initiative and lead forward change and improvements through innovative use of local powers; but in reality, due to excessive restrictions, local government is only able to act innovatively and responsively within parameters set by centralised authorities, far removed from local problems and issues.
Consideration of the way in which the GPC has been used, however, comes at a time when the relationship between Central and Local Government, particularly within the context of local council funding, is very much at the fore.
With the Coalition recently announcing that local councils would suffer a 10% cut in funding from Central Government, serious consideration needs to be given to the way in which local government can operate effectively. Whilst such cuts are inevitable during these financially constrained times, coupled with over prescriptive and centralised supervision, there is perhaps a danger that local authorities could reach a point where they are too reliant on central government telling them what to do within the financial limits also set by Whitehall.
One solution, discussed at the recent LGA Conference, would be to merge key government departments that provide public services, predominantly through local councils, and give local authorities the power to decide issues of funding and public service provision for themselves. This would shift the emphasis away from Ministers and a large number of civil servants, currently controlling local public service provision, and ensure that such power is directed and controlled at a more appropriate level, jointly by those at Whitehall and the local governmental level. Whilst creating what has been termed ‘an office for England’ would be a dramatic change with far reaching consequences, the key objective of giving local authorities greater power and more say over their funding could more realistically be achieved. It would relieve decision and policy makers of the ‘one size fits all’ approach and empower councils to allocate money appropriate for a particular policy area.
There is, as was noted at the LGA Conference, an awful lot of waste generated by the relationship between Central and Local Government which comes as a result of wanting to push power down to the local level at the same time as ensuring that Whitehall retains directing control over the broad framework of public service provision. Eradication of such waste would be a further by-product of Sir Merrick’s proposal, which could lead more widely to a much-needed redrafting of the constitutional relationship between Central and Local Government and perhaps finally give effect to what many recent governments have promised – power to the people.
John Stanton is a lecturer in law at City University, London.
Suggested citation: J. Stanton ‘The General Power of Competence and reshaping local public service provision’ UK Const. L. Blog (27th July 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).