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Local Government and Communities – Driving Inclusion Through Greater Devolution?

The ongoing trials and tribulations of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott MP may capture many more headlines, but one of the results of his rather headlong fall from political grace is moving forward in a purposeful manner.

When the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) was dismembered and the responsibilities that had been under the purview of Mr. Prescott were shared out, another minister who had not enjoyed a smooth ride in 2006 took over the local government and communities agenda. This, as many fans of Yes, Prime Minister will realise, can prove to be a poisoned chalice, as central government’s agenda rarely tallies with that of their local counterparts.

Seizing the Bull by the Horns

However, Mr. Prescott’s replacement appears to be seizing the bull by the horns and striving to continue the expressed desire ““ improving community inclusion and participation as a tool to encourage a permissive tolerant and progressive society. The erstwhile Education Secretary and current Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Ruth Kelly MP, has called for a heightened awareness of local issues in meeting the demand for empowerment of local communities and improving engagement and inclusion.

The local projects in Nottingham and Derbyshire were singled out for special praise by the Minister, and were held up as examples as she explained her agenda for devolution that will see communities in control of their services and local quality of life. The future of this will be further explained in the immediate build up to the Local Government White Paper, set to be published this Autumn. Essentially, the message is in keeping with that delivered to any number of public sector bodies or public ““ facing bodies: with more power comes more responsibility and the need for a more community ““ facing perspective.

The framework for success in what would appear to be a “neighbourhood watch ““ ing” scheme should include providing easy access to clearly presented information for communities, allowing the community to benefit from greater knowledge of what has happened and what is being planned in the area; providing responsive local services; smoothing the local routes of power and resolution, with Community Call for Action enabling people to approach more powerful ward councillors with issues; and a mechanism that will permit local communities to assume control of managing specific local services.

Balancing Act

The relationship between local, regional and national government systems will always prove to be a balancing act. Speaking at Bellingham Healthy Living Centre in Lewisham, Ruth Kelly spoke on the subject: “It is clear that central government must retain a role on the economy and on ensuring equity across the country. At the same time councils must continue to take a strategic view, looking across all their communities. But there is a lot of scope for a greater level of engagement and involvement at neighbourhood level. Devolution to the town hall must lead to devolution from the town hall to communities.

“As things stand, the balance is not right,” she continued. “There are many local authorities across the country listening and receptive to local demands – but now this must become the norm across local government. This is in the interests of all of us. It is about strengthening representative democracy by combining it with more on-going participation. It can – and will – lead to real tangible improvements.” After visiting local projects, she spoke of their importance, saying: “Through community action, run down areas in Bellingham that previously acted as a beacon for anti-social behaviour have been dramatically transformed into assets local people of all generations can use and be proud of.

“These are people from the local community who wanted to turn around the local environment – and have. Who wanted to bring people together – and have. Who wanted to make a difference – and they have,” she concluded. “Because of these kinds of successes I am determined that the starting point for our new deal for neighbourhoods must be the people who live there. Whether it is ensuring greater responsiveness to neighbourhood issues or – when people want to – giving greater control to local communities, it makes sense to make sure local people can have a greater say in their areas.”

Jethro Marsh

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