We haven’t heard much from the new government on Total Place. Prior to the election there were positive rumblings coming from the Conservative Party but as yet there has been no big announcement about how this programme may be continued. So, we argue that there is now an opportunity for the government stop and take a look where councillors fit in. We argue that any future Total Place influenced initiative needs to have democracy at its core and must address how locally elected councillors can be given more power to ensure that programmes designed to rationalise local services don’t privilege managerial decisions over local politics.
Total Place had tremendous potential, yet there was a danger of it becoming yet another top-down inaccessible initiative, undermining the citizen power and the frontline reforms it claims to supplement. As Ben Lucas argues in a recent Telegraph article, new localism must be based on extending citizen power over individual and neighbourhood budgets.
So what could this mean for a future programme like Total Place? By focusing on social problems that cut across the remit of individual institutions, the Total Place pilots have shown how costs can be cut and services improved. This holistic approach is achieved through mapping duplication in spending, and charting the unnecessary and costly maze-like journeys citizens embark on to receive services. It sounds good on paper but how does this fit with devolution and local democracy?
The average local councillor hasn’t fared well over the past decade. There has been a massive expansion of the managerial state, with numerous unnecessary quangos and centrally imposed targets and inspection regimes. This expansion means that the key arguments about how local government and local services work which were once firmly in the political territory of politicians are now rationalised and decided by the managers. For councillors, the change from the committee system to cabinet system has left many now with little influence, let alone decision making powers. If devolution is really about giving power to communities then it should also enhance the power of the local councillor. So far we have seen many politicians promise a greater role for councillors in localism while in reality putting in place the preparations for a solely managerial devolution. It is this that risked making the Total Place rhetoric – advocating a culture of change and a more empowered citizenry – meaningless. By effectively sealing shut the doors of power to those without any political legitimacy Total Place could have unwittingly visited further bureaucratic tyranny on local communities.
As Involve recently found out in developing councillorinthecommunity.org.uk, there is already a conspicuous absence of formal channels through which councillors can influence decisions in public institutions in their local area. Initiatives like Total Place could inadvertently affect the power of the councillor if in further rationalising local government it squeezes out local politics. While Total Place claimed the potential to make the efficiency savings needed in the current economic climate, the issue about democratic representativeness was left largely unaddressed. We argue that any future initiatives on this scale must look at the local democratic impact if they are not to run counter to the cornerstones of devolved local government: democratic accountability and transparency.
The key question the new government should be asking before continuing with the Total Place initiative is: how can we put councillors at the centre of local service choices and ensure that this does not become another exercise in extending managerialism over politics?
Laurie Waller and Zaki Nahaboo