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Localising levelling up: Getting the parish voice heard

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AUTHOR: PROFESSOR COLIN COPUS, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF LOCAL COUNCIL AT DE MONTFORT UNIVERSITY


As the Levelling up bill progresses through parliament and as some county deals begin to crystallise, it is clear there is a real need for local (parish and town) councils and district councils to work together to make sure the voice of local communities is heard.  

The immediate danger is that everything goes to county hall and stays there. County deals must not and cannot just mean county councils but must involve local councils and districts in the negotiations, creation and agreement of bespoke deals for the diversity of communities found across all counties.

While the focus of county deals is on economic growth, regenerating economic activity, infrastructural projects, adult skills and transport systems, all of these benefit from the insight, intelligence and community links that are the heart of parish government. The government, while stressing the need for ‘sensible economic geography’ (whatever that means), recognises that local identity is essential to the process of negotiation and deal-making – cue local councils and districts with their local identity and knowledge. The engagement of local councils – working closely with districts in the deal-making process can add finesse, sophistication, local expertise and badly needed manoeuvrability into what could become a cumbersome and top-heavy process. 

To ensure local voices are heard in levelling up, it is vital that local councils and districts form strategic alliances to influence and shape any deal and ensure double-devolution isn’t just a catch-phrase. While local councils vary enormously in resources and facilities, they all have a role to play in making sure the local voice is heard as deals are developed and working with the district council is a good way of achieving that voice. The local knowledge, networks and links with communities that local councils, working with districts, can bring to the process overcomes the danger that big projects ultimately fail if they forget or ignore communities and localities. The other danger is that levelling-up seems to have replaced devolution, and we are entitled to ask: whatever happened to localism? Devolution needs to bring more autonomy from the centre for local government, and double-devolution should be a central component of any county deal. Levelling up must not be a narrow economic policy but a way of improving the governance of our localities.

While international evidence shows that bigger local government is not better, there is the danger that levelling up is another blunt instrument in the reorganisation wars and the continual shift to large unitary local government. As the local government in England becomes more significant, it is only the local councils that remain that can ensure that local communities do not become isolated or ignored by new remote and distant unitaries created. The government also remains committed to seeing more directly elected mayors, but they are only thinking about the sub-regional level – it’s about time local councils got in on this act and pushed for an elected parish or town mayor/chair as a way of making sure a big unitary council has to listen to its localities. 

It would be nice to know what will be devolved and from which departments and how levelling–up will work. But the current lack of clarity is an opportunity to shape the agenda. Let’s be clear, though, while we use the term devolution, we are really talking about decentralisation, and that is not a semantic difference: we are likely to see specific service responsibilities, tasks and functions, and some controlled budgets decentralised through county deals, rather than any new freedoms, powers and autonomy for local government devolved at any level. 

As the bill progresses and as various deals are formalised, the strange formal exclusion of district councils from the process becomes more and more transparent for the mistake it is; yet, local councils are used to such exclusion and skilled in injecting their views into processes from which they have been overlooked by the centre and other agencies. So as levelling up is the only game in town – what should local councils be doing:

  • Don’t be shut out
  • Create a strategic alliance with the district council 
  • Work with districts (and county) to get the right deal for the parish or town
  • Be crystal clear about how the big grandstanding schemes can be tailored to suit real places
  • Using local councils and districts' local knowledge and networks, set out how a deal should integrate a range of public services – such as police and health or those provided by quangos and government departments – into a cohesive set of interactions aimed at improving the economic and social well-being of very local areas
  • The highlight throughout the process is how it is a parish and town level where local networks, community groups and social interaction are at their strongest and are where and how the big stuff of the deals must make sense and be relevant 

There is much at stake in levelling up and county deals that will mean a hard fight to keep local government local, and it is only local councils in alliance with districts that will achieve that badly needed goal. We need blood, sweat and tiers to make deals work. 

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