London Councils call for more responsibility to be devolved

I’ve just been to the launch of London Councils’ “Manifesto for London”.  This document – developed on a cross-Party basis following consultation with a range of stake-holders – is an ambitious challenge to the Government (whatever its composition following the General Election) to devolve more responsibility for local services to the London Boroughs. 

(The launch itself was well-attended in the House of Commons Members Dining Room.  I couldn’t help noticing that all five speakers were white men – a platform that would never have happened from 1995-2000 when I chaired the organisation, then called the Association of London Government.)

The Manifesto is not a plea for money and resources, although London Councils continues to make the case that London should receive an appropriate fair share of the national tax take to reflect both the needs of London’s population but also its pivotal role as the engine of the UK economy.  Indeed it was being suggested that the devolution proposed and the resulting integration with existing Borough services could deliver more effective services at less cost than the present arrangements.  (This may well be true eventually, but there would undoubtedly be a not insubstantial cost of reorganisation associated with the proposals.)

Mayor Jules Pipe, Leader of the Labour Group on London Councils, made the interesting point that devolution was something that all the major political parties at national level would claim to support (indeed, the Manifesto takes the Government’s Total Place concept to the next stage).  He argued that the devolution proposed could lead to more active engagement with local politics with Labour Councils being able to put forward a distinctive Labour vision for their communities, Conservative Councils being able to put forward a distinctive Conservative vision, and Liberal Democrat Councils being able to put forward a Liberal Democrat vision (I have to confess that I am not sure what this third vision would look like …..).

Some of the proposals are potentially very far-reaching and extremely radical.

The Manifesto for example would:

  • Make Primary Care Trusts’ non-acute care budgets accountable to the London borough in which they operate, to allow boroughs to direct those budgets to local need and integrate health and other care services with NHS spending;
  • Co-ordinate the funding streams of national back-to-work schemes and make them accountable to London boroughs;
  • Devolve London’s Skills Funding Agency resources to the London boroughs,  allowing boroughs to develop schemes tailored to the specific needs of their residents;
  • Devolve neighbourhood policing budgets to enable boroughs to commission the services their communities need from the MPS; and
  • Support boroughs’ work to integrate offender management, including financial incentives, and then make boroughs publicly accountable for their success in reducing re-offending.

The first of these examples would be a dramatic – but entirely sensible – reorientation of the way in which local health services and care are delivered.  As I have commented before, such a move would provide local democratic ownership of local health service decisions and it would encourage a much more seamless pattern of delivery with local care services.

The second and third of these recognise that the skills agenda and the need to re-equip people for work have never been effectively delivered by the existing bureaucratic quangoes in London and a local focus on what is seen to be effective and best meets the needs of local people is surely a step forward.

The fourth proposal – passing local policing budgets to Boroughs enabling them to purchase services from the Metropolitan Police – will no doubt provoke a serious attack of nerves in New Scotland Yard and I am not sure that Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, the new Chair-designate of the Metropolitan Police Authority, will relish having so much of his new train-set taken away before he has had a chance to play with it.  However, the configuration of neighbourhood policing – a role which in any event relies on partnership at community level – would certainly be made more responsive with such an arrangement and would, if properly defined, insulate and protect those other parts of policing that are essential (but less immediately visible).

The final example – devolving responsibility for offender management – is no less radical, but would build on some excellent initiatives that have already been trialled in London with a view to reducing re-offending.

I suspect the proposals as a whole may be rather too much for post-Election Government Ministers to swallow.  However, the proposals deserve serious consideration and it will be interesting to hear whether any convincing  justifications are given for not taking them forward.

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