Officers dig in to block change

The Localism Act is now moving to full deployment. All is not yet clear because 71 statutory instruments will need to be placed before Parliament and some of those will not come into effect before October. However the basics of the Act are clear – a big move of power away from Whitehall and to councils. Crucially some councils have yet to realise that there is a further step involved – the further devolution of power from the Town Hall to local communities.

Those of us involved with the ‘winning with localism operation’ within the Lib Dems are delighted with the way that our councillors and campaigners are looking imaginatively at ways of using the Act. They are not waiting for guidance or even the statutory instruments to challenge themselves, their councils and their communities to start work. We believe that there will be hundreds of places where on April 1 the council will be challenged to start a neighbourhood planning approach. There’s no need to wait for the final details when can start bringing together people to establish a neighbourhood planning group now.

Similarly we can start to list community assets on a register and look at appropriate challenges to poorly run services and do a whole host of things that the new laws allow.

Proving most contentious is the Power of General Competence. When we tell people that this means that councils can now do anything that an individual or company can do providing there is a business case for it gives people a major challenge. Those most challenged are officers! Let’s face it the power of general competence should not be needed. For 12 years we have had the economic social, and environmental well being powers. These amount to a power of General Competence, BUT whenever council leaders have suggested innovative uses of these powers the  response from most Chief Execs, 151 Officers and Chief Legal Officers has been, “With due respect councillor!” That is officer speak for NO!

In the private sector the job of a legal or finance officer is not ‘just’ to say no though that is always necessary in some cases. Their job is to say, “you can’t do it that way but you could do it this way.” This means a massive change of approach for many chief officers. They will have to become far more entrepreneurial and be ‘can do’ rather than ‘can’t do’.

The biggest changes will be required by planning and regeneration colleagues. For years such officers have survived by understanding the arcane working of the National Planning guidance or PPG 1 to 101. Now they have a new frame of reference – the people that live in communities. The guiding document will be the neighbourhood plan and the key skill required will be working with communities to develop and implement them.

I have already made a plea to Mr Pickles and Nick Clegg not to promote any more legislation that affects local government until 2015. The Localism Act and massive changes brought to councils by the Police Reform Act and perhaps one day a Health Reform Act need time to settle in. We will all have to change our structures and our cultures to deliver the opportunities that have already been offered to us.

Now the Cabinet Office needs to act to develop a culture change across central government. Dealing with communities, letting councils loose demands new knowledge, new skills and new thought processes. If you have been doing something one way in a top down hierarchical organisation like the civil service it will be difficult to change to the new opportunities created by localism. It would be wrong to blame civil servants for conservatism if the Government does not help them to change.

My real fear is that in 10 years time people will be saying of localism  what we now say about neighbourhood renewal, “Ah yes there was something about at the time; it looked quite good; I wonder what happened to it”.

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