Control freakery: Understanding who really gets to take control

Steve Rolfe

When Michael Gove reiterated the Brexiteers’ mantra of ‘taking back control’ at the recent Conservative Party Conference there was a strong sense of déjà vu about the whole performance. And not just because we’ve all heard the ‘taking back control’ message over and over again in the last 18 months. The repeated rhetoric of control also has strong echoes of an earlier Conservative policy idea – the notion of a ‘Control Shift’ at the heart of Localism and the Big Society. And the parallels go further. Just as campaigners have questioned what it might mean to ‘take back control’ after Brexit and who ends up in control, so my Local Government Studies paper, ‘Divergence in Community Participation Policy: Analysing Localism and Community Empowerment Using a Theory of Change Approach’ questions the policies which ostensibly aim to give power and control to communities.

Back in the early days of the Coalition government (remember those innocent pre-EU-referendum days?), the ideas of the ‘Big Society’ and shifting control to communities through Localism were big news, even if nobody could really work out what David Cameron meant by the Big Society. A whole raft of ‘new community rights’ were created, giving communities opportunities to challenge and take over public services, buy local assets, create their own Neighbourhood Plans and even develop local housing. Alongside this, the Localism Act aimed to ‘strengthen accountability’ of public sector organisations through directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, plus referenda on ‘excessive’ council tax increases. At the same time, the Scottish Government were using similar language to set out their Community Empowerment agenda, giving communities rights to participate in service improvement and extending rights relating to control and ownership of land and assets. Both these policy frameworks are still in place, shaping community participation across England and Scotland, albeit that anything non-Brexit gets very little media attention these days.

On the surface, Localism and Community Empowerment seem to share many common features. Both see community voices as an important tool to improve public services, and community action as a means to fill some of the gaps between such services. Moreover, the language of ‘devolving power to communities’ sounds very similar on both sides of the border. However, as I try to argue in my paper, a more detailed look at the assumptions underlying Localism and Community Empowerment suggest that the UK and Scottish Governments have quite different ideas about how communities should participate and how they should relate to public sector agencies.

Crucially, the Scottish Government’s agenda emphasises a positive-sum conception of empowerment, where communities and public sector agencies each gain power by working together collaboratively. By contrast, most of the elements within Localism operate on a zero-sum basis, focusing on taking power away from the local state to give it to communities. Clearly there are risks in both approaches. In the Scottish partnership approach local authorities may simply hang on to power and refuse to collaborate – the evidence from decades of community work in Scotland provides many examples of intransigent bureaucrats, although also many tales of productive cooperation. In England, analysis of the policy detail suggests there are more complex and subtle risks involved. Hidden beneath the rhetoric of community rights are mechanisms which turn communities into ‘market-makers’, forcing local authorities to put services out to tender and challenging limits on house-building. Hence control is not so much shifted to communities, but rather handed to the free market and private businesses.

Interestingly, however, the more recent evidence about the use of Localism’s ‘new community rights’ suggests that communities are savvier than David Cameron perhaps expected. The Community Right to Challenge (the most blatantly market-focused element) has been hardly used in the six years since it was instituted. And whilst Neighbourhood Planning has proved very popular across England, most communities are attempting to use it to exert some control over the local housing market, rather than letting it rip.

So perhaps those fans of Brexit who continue to trumpet the idea of ‘taking back control’ may need to reflect a little on who is actually gaining control as we leave the EU. The evidence from community participation policy suggests not just that the rhetoric may be concealing the intended winners in the process of shifting control, but also that such processes are often unpredictable as multiple actors attempt to impose their own notions of control.


Steve%20Rolfe%20pic.jpgSteve Rolfe is a Research Fellow at the University of Stirling. His research interests include community participation and empowerment, social enterprise and housing. Before entering academia, he worked in local government for 15 years in a range of community development and policy roles.

Council Tax Support – anatomy of a Pickles’ localism triumph

Chris Game

Shortly before the dissolution of Parliament, Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles issued an apparently self-penned eulogy of his ministerial record, entitled on the Government’s own website, in characteristic, cod Churchillian, style: Local Government: Delivering for England. It makes an interesting document, as would be hoped of one requiring two separate links.

First, I want to emphasise that it’s a genuinely useful exercise. It’s already easier than probably ever before to find out what the government thinks its policy is, at any particular time, both generally and by department and topic. Currently it has 224 of them. The DCLG has 24, including four each on local government and housing, and a rather extraordinary 215 “contain ‘local self-government’”.  There’s at least a Masters dissertation, surely: which nine Coalition policies failed to tick the ‘local self-government’ box?

Pickles’ eulogy, though, is quite different: a consummate politician’s listing of 60+ bullet-pointed triumphs and achievements, the like of which I at least can’t recall having for any previous administration.  The version even gives us a proxy measure of the difference – in the dozens of instances of ‘[political content removed]’. And there’s another dissertation: the insight provided by the redacted and unredacted versions into civil service interpretation of ‘political content’ in the run-up to a General Election.

None of this, however, provides more than the opening key to the main subject of this blog. Somewhere between Pickles’ 50th and 60th bullet points – shortly before “supporting the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee and VE Day by cutting Whitehall and municipal red tape on holding street parties, and introducing new laws to cut ‘elf and safety’ red tape on community events” – was “localising Council Tax Support (CTS), so councils are rewarded for getting people off the dole and welfare dependency and back into work, £1 billion has been cut from previous Council Tax Benefit (CTB) funding, and councils themselves bear the responsibility of increasing the living costs of some of their poorest residents.”

OK, I’d better come clean.  The ‘elf and safety’ bit is totally genuine – straight from the Pickles jar, as it were – but I’m afraid the last couple of clauses, after ‘back into work’, are mine, though, I would claim, entirely accurate and in a way slightly admiring.

For the CTB changes were Pickles’ self-styled muscular localism at its most politically skilful – a devolution of an important responsibility, impossible for councils to refuse, yet accompanied by conditions and constraints that meant any flak would go to them and any credit to the Conservative part of the Coalition.

The publication in the middle of the election campaign of the New Policy Institute’s third annual CTS monitoring report provides a timely opportunity to review one of the Coalition’s key and most controversial social policies, whose approaching launch was covered at the time in these columns.

The essence of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act was to replace, from April 2013, the means-tested Council Tax Benefit, paid for by the Department for Work and Pensions but administered to nearly 6 million recipients by local authorities, by Council Tax Support schemes individually determined and operated by the authorities themselves, and funded through business rates retention. It sounded like a laudable transfer of responsibilities from Whitehall to town hall – until you came to the attached strings.

First, with the professed aim of strengthening councils’ incentives to get people back into work, the amount the Government would pay local authorities for their new schemes would be 10% less than for CTB – creating for my own authority of Birmingham, for example, a funding gap of nearly £11 million.

Second, it ruled that pensioners receiving CTB must, and other particularly vulnerable groups should, be protected against any reduction in support – meaning in Birmingham that 54,000 pensioners were protected, while 83,000 working-age recipients were left shouldering potentially the whole savings burden.

It was only here, then, that the localism bit actually kicked in, with councils having the discretion, within a very tight deadline, to devise their own schemes to achieve these savings – and collect the taxes from their tens of thousands of new and aggrieved taxpayers.

In practice, this discretion amounted to three unenviable choices: spreading the cut in funding equally across virtually all CTB recipients apart from pensioners; giving the rebate to certain groups only; or continuing with the full rebate, and filling the gap either through raising council tax or finding savings elsewhere, on top of the savings already being demanded by the Government.

It would have been odd for a policy wholly designed to produce local difference not to do so, and there was and continues to be significant variation, in the metropolitan West Midlands as across the country. The practices adopted by the seven West Midlands metropolitan boroughs, though not statistically reflective of the national picture, can usefully illustrate it.

Game 9th April blog table

At that first time of asking in 2013, nearly 18% of the 326 English councils decided to continue with the same CTB-level rebate and somehow find the money, including four of the West Midlands seven.

70% of councils nationally and in the West Mids Birmingham and Wolverhampton – the two with the largest affected caseloads – introduced ‘minimum payment’ schemes, requiring everyone to pay at least some council tax, regardless of income. In Birmingham, therefore, it meant that almost all working-age people paid at least 20% of their council tax, representing an average annual payment of £147 or just under an extra £3 per week.

The remaining authorities, including Sandwell in our table, rejected ‘minimum payment’ but introduced other changes. Sandwell’s adjustments over the three years have included changing the income taper – the amount by which support is withdrawn as income increases; lowering the maximum savings limit over which one is no longer eligible for benefit; and reducing the second adult rebate – the benefit homeowners not on a low income receive if they share their home with someone (non-partner) on low income.

The main trends identified by the New Policy Institute over the now three years of CTS’ operation are the drop by nearly a third in the number of authorities still retaining all features of CTB, and the increase in percentage minimum payments – both seen in the West Midlands table. Nationally, 2.3 million low income families will pay on average £167 more in council tax in 2015/16 than they did under CTB, and 11% of those 2.3 million have also been affected by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’.

As for local councils, as is usually the case, they’ve generally coped – possibly too effectively for their own good. Some council tax collection rates have fallen fractionally, but nowhere (to my knowledge) as drastically as some predicted at the time. New council schemes to reduce worklessness are springing up all the time, but it’s difficult to identify which, if any, of these is incentivised by the CTB changes.

Something, though, is quantifiable.  Roughly £1 billion has been transferred from central government’s welfare bill to the shoulders of local government – and is being borne variously by increased bills for council tax support claimants, reductions in the claimant count, increased council tax bills for all, and reductions in other council budgets.  But then that’s muscular localism for you.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

An earlier version of the blog was published by The Chamberlain Files.

Achieving better outcomes for the troubled family of local government

In this debate, Simon Parker (NLGN), Catherine Staite (INLOGOV) and Tony Bovaird (INLOGOV) agree that the current state of UK local government is unsustainable – but see different routes to rescuing a sustainable future.

Simon Parker

The UK is currently renegotiating its social contract. You could be forgiven for not having noticed. After all, our national politicians don’t really want to talk about it. But at the local level this debate is impossible to avoid: councils will either have to invent the next generation of government or find themselves one nostril above the waterline.

So far, so consensual. The big challenge lies in whether and how a positive kind of change might happen, and this is perhaps where recent work on the future of local government differs most strikingly. The more hopeful scenarios in INLOGOV’s recent report with Grant Thornton (2020 Vision: Exploring finance and policy future for English local government) rely heavily on changes from Westminster. They ask for a major recalibration of the central/local relationship as the only way to preserve local public services.

This is a risky strategy. It is far from clear that any government in 2015 is really prepared to take the kind of radical action that would be necessary to put local services on a sustainable footing.

How would a new localist settlement reach the political agenda? Do we really believe the English question is a powerful-enough driver, especially when the agenda has been shunted into either the watery promise of a constitutional convention or English votes for English laws?

Isn’t more incremental muddle still the likeliest outcome? It would have been interesting to see INLOGOV’s report puzzle this one through in more detail.

This is not a counsel of despair. My own recent work is optimistic about the potential for a combination of incremental national change combined with rapidly accelerated local innovation to drive the creation of a new way of doing local government. I don’t pretend this will happen evenly across the country. Innovation never does, especially in a society where resources and opportunity are so unequally distributed.

But we only need a few authorities to make the breakthrough to a new mode of operating so they can show others the way. Waiting for the centre is far riskier.

Simon Parker is director of NLGN. He started his career in journalism and has since worked in management consultancy, lobbying and research, most recently as a fellow at the Institute for Government. Simon has published widely on public service reform in the UK and internationally.

Tony Bovaird

The 2020 Vision report suggests that only ‘disruptive innovation’ can save the English local government system. However, it also gives plenty of evidence that neither central government nor most local authorities are likely to be keen on disruptive innovation in practice – and some local authorities wishing to espouse it may turn out to be no good at it. The report also stresses (p.32) that ‘any new system is likely to fail if it is imposed upon a local government sector which does not agree with its broad outline’.

So disruptive change is needed, is likely to be resisted and cannot successfully be imposed externally. This is a bleak picture. However, there appears to me to be one get-out available – giving real ‘localists’ their head.

The whole point of local government is that it should be locally different, so that it can be locally appropriate. ‘Locally appropriate’ carries a price, of course – it means that locally appropriate resources need to be available, in order that locally appropriate outcomes are achieved. This is the question that has to be solved in order that we have ‘locally different’ local government. Because we DON’T have ‘locally different, locally appropriate’ local government, it is no surprise that the public doesn’t know much about local government, nor care much, nor protest at the current evisceration of councils.

So, let’s design a pathway to ‘disruptive innovation’ that does not rely on policy wonks in Whitehall. Let’s give to local authorities wishing to be really ‘localist’ the right to a local tax (perhaps they should be allowed to choose local income tax, local sales tax or local mansion tax?). And let’s give them the right to pool their budgets with other local public service agencies, to share data with any other local public service agency and to use their budgets to take compulsory short-term leases (at low rents) on any properties (housing or commercial) in their area which have been empty for more than a year.

In this way, the full power of local resources (not just local council budgets) would become available to local government.

And how should these ‘really localist’ local authorities be chosen? Well, not by Whitehall, for sure. Nor by any central mechanism (such as the LGA nominating some of its members). No, let residents decide – any local authority should be allowed to go down this route if it gets support in a local referendum.

tony-bovaird-Cropped-110x146Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV.  He worked in the UK Civil Service and several universities before moving to the University of Birmingham in 2006.  He recently led the UK contribution to an EU project on user and community co-production of public services in five European countries, and is currently directing a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on using ‘nudge’ techniques to influence individual service co-producers to participate in community co-production.

Catherine Staite

We have a settlement which is the most centralised in the world. There are two sides to the balance of power between central and local government and two things have to change – local government needs to take back some powers, including over local taxation, but central government also needs to let go.

My heart lies with local government but my head observes that it has not yet made a compelling case for devolution – from the risk averse perspectives of Whitehall and central government. So what are the factors which would encourage and enable Whitehall to let go?

The first one must be demonstrable competence. Local government can make a good case that they are pretty good at what they do. Of course, bad things do happen and sometimes lessons aren’t learned, resulting in serial failures. These instances get into the news because they are so rare. All major failures involve other agencies but local government often ends up holding the blame instead of getting recognition for what it is very good at – holding the ring in a complex system of public services.

Sadly, the effective financial management, reliable service delivery and inspired leadership of place, which characterise the majority of local authorities, doesn’t make the news. You just don’t see ‘residents reasonably happy’ as a news headline but perhaps more public recognition by central government of local government’s competence would help to strengthen mutual trust.

The second one would be a coherent, agreed approach on the shape of local government in the future, but we are a long way from that. The competitive habits of some county councils – arguing that county unitaries are the only way forward for two-tier areas – have generated more heat than light as well as flying in the face of the evidence success of a number of long running collaborative arrangements between districts.

The process of agreeing the boundaries and then creating the 2009 unitaries was fraught, in several areas, with the worst sort of behaviour but Combined Authorities have now begun to demonstrate just what can be achieved when old rivalries are buried and everyone is focusing on the future not the past. This suggests that collaborative, rather than competitive approaches will deliver a brighter future for local government. That would be better for everyone, as counties seem to forget that, in a change to unitary status, they would also be abolished. In the elections following the creation of the 2009 unitaries, former district members did better than former county councillors.

The third useful thing would be democratic re-engagement. Of course, it is hard for members to engage with their residents when the residents can see quite clearly that most important things, like how much money the council has, are decided a long way away in Whitehall. That would change if we had some devolution but, in the meantime, there are a lot of things which could be done now. The profiles of elected members in terms of age, ethnicity and gender don’t match the communities they serve. This is the result of two significant failures, that of political parties to invest in the recruitment and development of excellent and diverse candidates and that of many members to adapt to the modern world. A lot of complex and challenging questions remain unanswered, including what level of allowances would enable someone who has not already retired on a good pension to become a member.

Members often resist becoming involved in development activities and using new technology, but unless they have the skills to become more strategic and make better use of their time, they’ll be presiding over the councils which are sliding from ‘a nostril above the water’ to being completely submerged.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Planning and the new (new) localism – what chance of success?

Nancy Holman

Planning in a time of austerity is never easy – budgets are cut, needs are great and regulation can be seen as stifling growth.  In England we are in just such a position and in the midst of a reformulation of planning that is on the one hand meant to deliver growth and on the other designed to empower communities. Most of these reforms are being couched in the language of localism with community participation at the forefront of policy.

However, these reforms raise a series of questions that have yet to be answered: Who will get involved in local planning? Will localism foster increased NIMBYism? And most importantly, can the localism agenda actually engender action toward policy implementation? My article, co-authored with Yvonne Rydin, examines these dilemmas through the lens of social capital and offers key insights into this latest governmental foray into local social relations.

Who will get involved?

The Localism Act provides communities with an opportunity to come together and formulate their own neighbourhood plans thereby shaping their locale.  Key to this is engaging people in sufficient, meaningful and constructive participation. Social capital suggests that this can be kindled when like-minded communities come together over locally salient issues thereby creating networks of mutual trust and reciprocity.  However, this scenario is not without problems as in order for it to work communities must believe that the benefits of participation are not offset by the opportunity costs of participating. In addition, the strong ties of bonding social capital that emerge from participative exercises can in turn foster more insular and exclusionary localities outweighing any strategic benefits to greater community involvement.

Will localism foster NIMBYism?

Even if the localism agenda fosters communities burgeoning with social capital and a zeal for participation, a real fear, from the government’s perspective, is that these communities will be those best able to resist growth, which runs counter to the Coalition’s aspiration for localist planning.  Countless studies, from the location of mobile homes in post-Katrina New Orleans to LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses) in Japan, have shown that strong social capital is associated with heightened abilities to avoid unwanted development.  Whilst the government has put in place a number of measures like the New Homes Bonus to incentivise local communities to grow the jury is still out on how well this will work.

Will the agenda actually engender policy action?

As the old adage goes, “Almost anyone can write a plan, the difficult part is putting into action”. Critically, there is nothing in the new system of Neighbourhood Plans that makes them more proactive and action oriented in terms of bringing land and development forward to achieve plan outcomes. Here, social capital tells us that, if communities wish to see their plans implemented they must situate themselves in networks that extend beyond local bonding ties into a bracing matrix tailored to the needs of the development activity so that they may access additional resources and investments.  This means that there is scope to ‘shape’ networks to deliver more effective planning.

So, what might be the outcomes of government reform?  As it stands, the rhetoric of localism is in danger of delivering only failed promises and thwarted desires for local communities.  However, planners could regain a key role under the new agenda by focussing on how they could actively build the networks of specific forms of social capital needed to achieve participation, frame localist planning in broader terms by injecting much needed planning skills into the neighbourhood planning exercise, and deliver development that meets community needs by considering the necessary resources and engaging with those who have the power to deliver such change.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Yvonne Rydin: ‘What can social capital tell us about planning under localism?Local Government Studies. 39 (1), 79-88.


Nancy Holman is the Director of Planning Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work deals primarily with issues of governance and local planning including sustainable development, heritage conservation and community participation. She has often used social network analysis to explore the complex relationships in the multi-level, multi-actor partnerships present in modern governing arrangements.

Elected Councillors: How much influence and power are they able to exercise?

John Raine

What might we expect of the county councillors we elected yesterday? Will those elected be able to implement the various initiatives they have pledged in their campaigns? In this respect, we might reasonably be a tad sceptical for a number of reasons.

First, councils no longer occupy the core local policy-making role of previous times. Nowadays there is more emphasis on multi-agency partnering in local public policy-making so that key matters are often decided in conjunction with other local public, voluntary and private sector organisations. While this may be beneficial in ensuring more ‘joined up’ public services, without doubt it has weakened the power and influence of elected councillors.

Second, the ‘cabinet’ model, introduced a decade ago, under which an elite group of councillors lead on policy-making, has also disempowered other councillors. While some can be influential internally on scrutiny committees reviewing policy and holding the cabinet members to account, many others act mostly as ward representatives and without much opportunity at all to contribute to decision-making.

Third, many of the services are now provided as ‘shared services’ with neighbouring councils and other local public organisations; others have been contracted out or are tied up in long-term public-private-partnership arrangements. While this may have reduced costs, it has also become more difficult for individual councillors to be influential in relation to those services since any proposed changes have to be re-negotiated with other partners and may involve complex contractual issues that are expensive-to-unpick.

Fourth, the move by councils to establish front-line, multi-service, ‘customer contact centres’ and public websites that not only provide information but also allow the public to interact directly, e.g. reporting maintenance and other problems, has diluted the role of the councillor as conduit to getting matters remedied. Indeed, in the digital era of sophisticated telephony and CRM systems, the elected councillor may well be last to learn about the problems that previously they might have championed on behalf of the public.

Fifth, the on-going austere financial climate facing councils means that there are generally less resources for new initiatives unless there is the prospect of efficiency improvements and financial savings in return. Moreover, lack of money provides a convenient excuse for the political leadership and officers to say ‘no’ to other councillors whose ideas happen not to find favour.

Overall, then, one might conclude that, despite all the rhetoric from government about ‘localism’ and about the empowerment of councillors as community leaders, the power and influence of those we eleced yesterday to make a significant difference will unfortunately seem quite limited. But candidates for councillorship should not be deterred; ‘where there is a will there is a way’! And for those elected and with sufficient commitment and determination to confront the obstacles and to press their cases for change effectively, there is certainly much to be done to make councils work better and more for the benefit of those they represent.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV. He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors.