Andrew’s thoughts on the Localism Bill

My Lords, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on bringing this Bill before the House. It holds important opportunities for local communities to take hold of their assets and use them to mould their own futures. In my view, particularly in the inner cities, too many people’s lives have been controlled by the state, with disastrous results for some of the poorest communities in the country. The state has often been responsible for creating dependency cultures which breed poverty, apathy and a lack of ownership. The human spirit, which always seeks to create and take responsibility for life, has been dulled, and the taxpayer has paid the price. It is time to begin to pass the ownership of and responsibility for local assets to local people. This Bill represents a small first step forward by boldly handing over public sector assets directly to those individuals and organisations who wish to help build their local communities’ future. I believe that the Bill will be welcomed by many communities and forward-thinking local authorities. For example, the mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, is currently leading a debate on how his council can help residents take control of their lives and improve their situation and stop delivering services in ways that sustain and encourage dependence.

I would like to focus my comments on Part 4 which is concerned with community empowerment, and particularly Chapter 3 which enables voluntary and community bodies such as churches and charities, as well as public sector employees delivering services, to express an interest in running a local authority service. This is an important step forward. If we truly want to empower communities, they need to take responsibility for their own future by building enterprises and taking ownership of local assets. This very practical activity can, in my experience, not only develop entrepreneurial skills but also, in diverse communities, create community cohesion and build new relationships. One of the ways to ease racial tensions is by investing money in practical projects where people from different communities have to come together to take hold of their futures as individuals. We would see greater unity in the divided communities of Bolton and Bradford if the Government began to hand over physical assets to those local communities, apply funding streams in a way that brings people together, and demand the input of community practitioners and activists. Practical projects, if managed well, can be game changers in local communities if the public sector gets out of the way and gives local people the space to be entrepreneurial.

Innovation in health and education will not come through speeches, policy papers and strategy documents. Change will come through local leaders, be they doctors, teachers, social entrepreneurs or residents, taking ownership of land, buildings and services and running them. As I have repeatedly pointed out in your Lordships’ House, there are nearly 50,000 churches in Britain which, along with other faith communities, would be interested in playing a key role in the big society by stimulating an enterprise environment. There can be real social and economic benefits if local social enterprises are encouraged to run integrated services. This works in practice because social enterprises, like churches, can look at the totality of the local context, the experience of the individual and the family, and not just one bit of it. I and my colleagues have done this for many years now in all of our projects, especially in East London, with some success. It is essential for us to create across this country a culture of learning by doing. Part 4 of the Bill begins to give local communities the tools to do just that. Let none of us be under the illusion that this is easy and that a few lines in the Bill will make change happen. There are real challenges here.

The Bill in its present form asks for two extremely unequal parties-the local authority and the local partner-to work through complex community issues. This disproportionate relationship will result in the local authority holding all the cards and, if it is opposed to the novel ideas presented in this Bill, it will use its full hand to prevent change despite any paper reassurances that the Bill can offer to the contrary. I had direct experience of this problem some years ago. Let me describe what happened in practice.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tower Hamlets had a new Liberal Democrat council. In a bid to bring decision-making closer to the community, the Lib Dems divided the borough into seven neighbourhoods which would have some semblance of devolved control over the decisions that affected them. Although this sounded innovative at the time, we soon came to realise that the fundamental concerns behind the thinking was wrong. This approach, in common with the ideas of other parties which would follow, cared more about implementing structures than about working with local leaders and the agents of change. The frequently shifting political landscape was tough on the people of Bow. Every political change seemed to be followed by at least three years of chaos while new structures were implemented and old ones taken down. During these chaotic years, my team and I decided to forge ahead and encourage people from the voluntary sector to work with people from the public sector on a joint project which could, we hoped, offer an intelligent response to some of the so-called intractable social problems.

The chief executive, Bill Tomlinson-a good man-wanted to take the localism agenda further and explored the transfer of local authority services to community organisations, a somewhat radical idea at the time. The Bromley-by-Bow Centre decided to look at each area of council activity in our local area and see which services could be contracted out to us. We were proposing a long-term contractual relationship instead of one based on short-term grants. Every Friday afternoon my colleagues would sit down with Bill and one of his heads of services and attempt to come to an agreement that would move the project forward. Some of the conversations were positive and some were straightforwardly hostile, but eventually we agreed a contract comprising three elements of responsibility that we-at that time a small voluntary sector project-would take charge of. The services to be transferred to us were agreed as: running community education classes; providing care services for local elderly and disabled people; and running the local park. We believed that we had the capacity and experience to now take ownership of these services and run them well; the council thought so, too.

Unfortunately, one week after the ink was dry, the Liberal Democrats lost control of the borough to Labour even though our ward remained Lib Dem. As usual, structures had to change. The infrastructure of seven neighbourhoods was swiftly removed and, in its place, Labour invented seven committees to run the borough instead. It took another five years until we were able to start having a coherent conversation again with the local authority. In 2000, a more dynamic relationship began to develop between the centre, the council and the health service. New, more business-minded leadership teams were thankfully appearing in these public sector bodies. For 10 years we worked well together.

How will the Government address the imbalance in this relationship so that two unequal partners, operating with different scales of resources and responsibilities, can achieve a desired outcome? Will this Bill actually be practicable for a local social enterprise to successfully challenge its local authority and seek to run a service? The key, I believe, lies with who decides the specifications of the service and the cost. Will that person be independent and local so that the devil in the detail is understood? There needs, of course, to be provision for the possibility that a community organisation, like any part of the public and business sectors, can fail and that a service contract or community asset will need to be recovered by a local authority. Again, getting the detail of this right will be important.

My question to the Minister is: does anybody currently drafting this legislation have personal experience of challenging a local authority when trying to deliver a service? If the Minister would find it helpful, I would be willing to share our considerable experience in this area and explore together how we might make this piece of the legislation workable in practice.