(This is a bit of thinking out loud in an entirely personal capacity)
In future times as we look back on the process of devolution now beginning, we may see that this was the point at which localism came to an end.
This may seem contradictory – surely devolution is a decentralising force and therefore utterly consistent with localism?
Localism is in the eye of the beholder.
Because I did some work a couple of years ago on a scenario planning exercise called “The Four Futures of Local Government”, and because a number of local authorities and their senior teams were kind enough to invite me in for a discussion about it, I have had the chance to discuss localism with very bright and committed people in a range of different contexts, and to confront with them:
- the natural tendency to see the optimal point to which power should be ceded to be coincidentally exactly “my” level, wherever “I” happen to be
- the apparent simplification of issues the lower something is cascaded – for those to whom the cascading is happening – but the tremendous fears of loss of control and accountability to those further up the chain, with an explosion in aggregate apparent complexity and non-standardisation as issues are cascaded lower.
It’s all about managing complexity. If we are thinking about devolving health to meet social care, for example, (which is something I’m thinking about for a variation of the four futures exercise, currently), the complexities (and natural footprint) of a health economy appear to be something which needs a larger area than that of many local authorities. The devolution of health is welcome, but I feel that as health comes down to sub-national areas, that social care may have to aggregate to meet it.
I am becoming aware of some smaller authorities who are seriously considering a degree of aggregation of their child and adult social care services with neighbours, in order to achieve the scale that is needed, and this feels like a more powerful force than the pressures to take health to an even lower level than, say the current CCG level.
If this is true, and we’re going to see the combined authorities, with their elected mayors, becoming superpower-authorities with significant sway over economy, health and social care – and possibly benefits and local taxation, over time, then the complexities at that level will be hard to push down further – not because the vision will be lacking, or because the concept isn’t appealing, but simply because the practical politics, and the sheer administrative/organisational burden, will be so high.
Will this be better than the current system? I believe it could be – I am a localist, I am willing to simplify at the sharp end and accept the ambiguity and complexity which this will bring to the higher-ups. But I am disappointed that we may find the decentralisation getting stuck at such a high level.
A possible solution which might break through that will be a focus on personalisation, and/or user centred design. If the process of achieving joined up solutions can do an “end run” from the combined authority to the individual, or to the individual family, skipping over the intermediate layers of local government and other local administration, then this may give us what we need, overall: remorselessly efficient and highly relevant, joined up public services for the individual. Combined authorities will, I hope, have the scale and firepower to undertake proper user-centred work, collaboratively with the user community, and coproduced with them, in order to achieve this in a way that steadily denuded local authorities may not.
These thoughts are what I am hoping to test through observation, and hands-on where I can, as Devo rolls on.
What do you think?