Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour must challenge the myths about decentralisation

Far from creating a postcode lottery, greater localism can lead to lower levels of regional inequality.

When Ed Miliband set out his vision for people-powered services, he was clear that the centralised state cannot diagnose and solve every local problem. Genuine power cannot be transferred to service users if decision-making is hoarded in Whitehall. Jon Cruddas reinforced this when he set out the importance of devolving power to delivering Labour’s ambitions of a more equal and inclusive society.  

This reflects Labour's  defining mission to tackle inequality. The Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s First Report: The case for change, now sets out the underlying case for such a power shift – and why inequality and decentralisation are inherently linked.

The election in 2015 will be an important juncture for our public services – the course pursued after this point will determine whether they can play an effective role in the future in overturning the social determination of poor life chances. The twin pressures of rising demand and shrinking resources are forcing a choice. Either to continue, as this government has largely pursued, the course of salami-slicing Whitehall budgets, squeezing separate services and tinkering around the edges of traditional modes of delivery. This will lead to the decline, retrenchment and residualisation of public services with ever-higher thresholds for use and the termination of some altogether.

The danger is so immediate that this status quo has now become riskier than the second option: fundamental reform. The Taskforce’s report sets out the foundations for how this can be achieved through a new strategy that organises services around places, rather than within departmental silos from the centre replicated in communities. This is based on evidence of what is working already – where innovations are being driven against the flawed logic of a system which constrains the ability of services to adapt to the challenges they are confronted with.

By providing services that are more anchored to local conditions, designed around people’s actual, not perceived needs, they can be more effective. By better enabling services to collaborate and cooperate beyond institutional boundaries they can be more efficient and drive out duplication. And by taking a whole system approach across all services in an area, early intervention can be built in with incentives between services aligned to secure the cashable savings that are required for proper shift away from high cost reaction and towards prevention.

But to realise this strategy will involve dispelling some myths that are often propagated about decentralisation.

Firstly, that it will lead to a postcode lottery in provision. While we must recognise existing variations in a centralised system, our evidence cites international comparators which show higher levels of decentralisation can lead to lower levels of regional inequality. This, combined with evidence that the potential of our big cities outside London is held back by centralisation, would strongly suggest that to achieve greater fairness overall we should pursue decentralisation with determination, as an effective route to social justice.

Secondly, that local structures are not up to the job. Local councils can be prone to weaknesses in a system that largely concentrates power and resource at the centre. Yet failures at the centre occur frequently – the Work Programme and Universal Credit are two examples of centrally managed programmes that are struggling to cope. But when the centre fails this is seen as particular, rather than a reflection of its systemic inability to deal effectively with complexity at scale. Given that all levels of public administration are prone to strengths and weaknesses, a more objective strategy would be based on understanding what level of governance is appropriate for maximising the impact of interventions.

Thirdly, that by decentralising, a Labour government wouldn’t be able to deliver on its agenda everywhere in the country. On the contrary, our approach to a new settlement between the centre and local areas would be based on a clear set of national entitlements as the basis of a devolved approach to ensure people and places are directly empowered as a result. Given that the old levers of a centralised state have reached the limits of their efficacy, a more decentralised statecraft is now a more realistic means of achieving change: in a complex world distance is a hindrance.

The challenge will be to create a reformed approach which enables innovation that can quickly develop, spread and embed – driving success, rather than enshrining aversion to failure. In this way, we can create new routes to meeting the demand pressures and over time seek a sustainable system-shift towards prevention, and ensure a system in which no individual or community is held back from fulfilling their potential. This will be the ultimate test for people-powered services.

Sir Richard Leese is Co-Chair of the Local Government Innovation Taskforce and Leader of Manchester City Council.

The Taskforce’s First Report: The case for change is available here. Their final report is due later this year. 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.