Progressive Futures

Decentralisation delayed

18 October 2017

How we can tackle policy challenges from the ground up

Ed Wallis

Why do we find it so hard to decentralise? For years now, politicians have been suggesting they seek power primarily to give it away. This has stemmed from a growing acceptance that the scale and complexity of Britain’s social challenges are so great, they are unlikely to be effectively addressed from Westminster.

Austerity has given greater impetus to this direction of policy travel. Government is unable to throw money at problems and so is increasingly seeking savings through experimentation at the local level. By giving local areas greater control of a wider range of policy levers, services can be shaped around the distinct needs of every person, the full scope of local assets can be harnessed, and the strengths of innovative local organisations can be brought into play.

New Labour, new localism

This trend began during the New Labour years, following a first term in which tight central control had failed to yield the desired levels of social progress. As the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) put it, New Labour “extended democratic principles further than any previous government”.[1] Building on the successful experiments with devolution, Labour’s ‘New Localism’ agenda introduced place-based initiatives aimed at tackling persistent disadvantage in so-called ‘hard to reach’ communities, and created new institutions for greater citizen involvement in public service delivery.

As Guy Lodge and Rick Muir explain, this led to “some important initiatives, such as the spread of participatory budgeting, new duties on councils to respond to local petitions, experiments with citizens’ juries, and the direct engagement of communities in regeneration schemes such as the quietly popular New Deal for Communities”.[2]

The latter was a particularly significant attempt to embed a more localised approach to social policy. The New Deal for Communities created 39 local partnerships, spending a total of £1.71bn on 6,900 projects.[3] The independent evaluation of the programme found evidence of “considerable positive change in the 39 NDC areas: in many respects these neighbourhoods have been transformed”.[4] Alongside this, Neighbourhood Renewal Funds supported locally-developed strategies to tackle poverty and social exclusion in very deprived neighbourhoods.

The London School of Economics has concluded that these “these reforms represented a very substantial change in approach … in which responsibilities for identifying and addressing the problems of the most deprived neighbourhoods moved more firmly to the local level.”[5] However, these types of more localist initiatives only ever really grazed the sides of New Labour’s governing agenda. Indeed as the RSA put it, “time and again, champions of decentralisation in the Department for Local Government and Downing Street found their ideas accepted in principle but then undermined by the centralising reform tendencies of both the Treasury and major Whitehall service departments”.[6] Ultimately New Labour’s statecraft became a byword for command and control, focused on the tyranny of New Public Management’s ‘targets and markets’ to wring higher performance out of public services, and a centralised tax credits regime to ‘make work pay’.

The coalition years

In response to Labour’s perceived over-reliance on an over-bearing ‘big state’ – and further fueled by the desperate search for savings following the financial crisis – the coalition government was founded on a shared commitment to decentralisation. As the 2010 Conservative manifesto set out:

“We believe that if you decentralise power, you get better results and better value for money. So the plans set out in this manifesto represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local, from politicians and the bureaucracy to individuals, families and neighbourhoods”[7]

This rallying cry found its way onto the statue books through the Localism Act in 2011, the most extensive non-financial piece of legislation passed that parliament.[8] At the heart of this was a set of Community Rights, giving local people the opportunity to take on ownership of important local assets like pubs, shops or community centres; take over the running of local services; build local housing and create Neighbourhood Plans.

Alongside this, the coalition made further attempts to put the architecture of social policy on a more local footing. Community Budgets, later rebranded as Our Place, pooled budgets at a neighbourhood level, so services could be reshaped around the user. Department for Communities and Local Government described the programme as “a fundamental part of the government’s approach to localism”, which would support communities “to design and deliver local services that focus on local priorities and reduce costs.”

However, the overarching story was a familiar one to the New Labour years, with the independent evaluation of the programme concluding:

“Most activities developed under Our Place are still operating, precariously it seems, outside of mainstream local public service budgets and many are now relying on further time limited grants, often from the Big Lottery, to continue. We see this as similar in many respects to the challenges experienced by previous programmes with related aims such as New Deal for Communities (NDC) and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund (NRF).”[9]

Indeed it was the Troubled Families programme that was the coalition’s flagship attempt to mainstream social policy decentralisation and bring social justice to an area near you. As Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Strategy put it, “the most effective solutions will often be designed and delivered at a local level”.[10] Troubled Families sought co-ordinated interventions to “turn around” the lives of around 120,000 families experiencing severe multiple disadvantage and whom the Treasury calculated were costing the taxpayer £9bn a year.[11]

A recent study of local authorities in Greater Manchester who implemented the Troubled Families programme found some successes in terms of a more decentralised approach. Service teams communicated well and information was shared between them about the families; better relationships were created between families and public services; and many families reported feeling empowered.[12] There was a shift towards greater service integration, through the establishment of hubs and the co-location of teams, which allowed for better communication and information sharing, and so enabled a more rounded view of family needs.

However, service providers faced various challenges, including rigid legislation, anxiety about redundancy and loss of professional identity. The Troubled Families programme needed to be more personalised and the generic support received was perceived by some service users as ineffective and patronising.[13] In particular, the use of a Payment by Results scheme is undermining to local autonomy, with the Greater Manchester study finding this inhibited collaboration at the street level. The national evaluation of the programme asserted that the use of PbR caused perverse incentives, and found a lack of evidence that the programme had an impact on outcomes.[14]

Troubled Families appears to be yet another example of central government failing to truly ‘let go’, with PbR a clear example of Whitehall’s desire for control undermining a programme that is ostensibly about empowering local areas.

The later years of the coalition saw policy momentum shift from the localism agenda to the city region devolution deals of the ‘northern powerhouse’. This has provides decentralisation with a fresh opportunity to go further, with newly created combined authorities gaining control of a wide range of policy levers, spanning skills, transport, employment and, most significantly perhaps, health and social care in Greater Manchester.

However, it is not inevitable that with devolution comes decentralisation; indeed initial signs are that devo deals are actually sucking up power, away from local areas and into new regional bureaucracies. A recent appraisal of devolution in Greater Manchester by the New Economics Foundation concluded that “devolution is too top-down”, primarily reflecting the priorities of central government rather than the needs of the local area, and that the devolution deal making process “undermines democratic decentralisation”, having been conducted behind closed doors by elites.[15]

How to keep it local

So it seems that the story of recent public policy has been one of ‘decentralisation delayed’; with the ambition of political commitments to shifting power away from the centre ultimately unmatched by policy practice. What’s more, the 2017 general election suggests that even the rhetorical desire to decentralise is on the wane. Both Labour and the Conservatives’ manifestos were striking in their statism, clearly focused on the role of the centre in ensuring fairness or driving the economy forward.

The Conservatives made a nod towards the devolution agenda, but it is clear that since George Osborne’s departure, the political momentum behind the northern powerhouse has subsided: it is no longer the focal point for the party’s economic and political strategy. Labour’s manifesto represented a super-charged social democracy, very much building on Ed Miliband’s policy agenda of increasing taxation on wealthy the fund extra spending on public services, but with larger numbers and greater clarity about exactly who would pay.

However, if the national picture has something of a ‘Back to the Future’ feel to it, at the local level there is a greater sense of urgency behind new, more ‘bottom up’ approaches. This is, for the most part, being driven by necessity. We are careening ever closer to crunch point on the infamous ‘graph of doom’, where the severe cuts to local authority budgets will leave them unable to fund anything beyond statutory social care and refuse collection.[16] And the local financial landscape has been left even more treacherous by lack of clarity over the plans to phase out the central government grant and replace it with 100% retention of business rates. With the Local Government Finance Bill dropped to make way for Brexit legislation in the aftermath of the general election, London Councils have called full implementation of the policy by 2019-20 “unrealistic”.

So local authorities need to find a way to do more with less – not at some point over the next few years, but right now. Locality has been working with a number of local authorities to help them ‘deliver differently’, reimagining the design and management of their parks, libraries and community centres in partnership with local people. Locality’s members are community ‘anchor’ organisations – resilient and enterprising local organisations, deeply embedded within their community, offering a two-way link with the local public sector and making long-term, sustainable change a real possibility.

Alongside this we’ve also been working across Europe to learn lessons on new approaches and share ideas. This is through InnoSI, a pan European research project, funded through the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme.[17] InnoSI is focused on the transformation of European welfare states in response to the big economic and social challenges thrown up by the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed. The project has conducted in-depth case study evaluations of social policy pilots across 10 European countries, and the research highlights in particular the potential of local initiatives, cross-sector collaboration and social action to tap into new capacities and resources to achieve public policy goals. However, it also suggests that wider system change needs government support and political buy-in, to mainstream new approaches and make them sustainable for the long term.

One example from Finland is a process called ‘user-driven public service development’. This is an experimental approach to public service design, which facilitates collaboration between services users, community groups, local service providers and others. The first step is the discovery phase, in which the issue to be addressed is understood and potential users determined. This is crucial, to learn properly about how things are actually working currently before redesigning it. Secondly, new service concepts are created in consultation with users through co-creation workshops. Thirdly, service concepts are tested through methods such as storyboarding and participatory budgeting. And lastly, the service which tested well is implemented.

The ‘May I Help You’ model was created as part of this approach, which brought unemployed young people to help older people living alone with small, everyday tasks. The aim was to prevent social exclusion for these two groups through one programme. Evaluation of the programme found participants in ‘May I Help You’ valued the process, felt engaged and genuinely listened to. It shows how creative, patient co-design of services can increase service productivity and quality, finding cost-effective solutions to difficult policy challenges, as well as enhancing a wider sense of democratic participation.

Another example of where the potential of local resources has been harnessed to tackle a complex policy challenges comes from Sweden. UK policy debates tend to look longingly to what Robert Heilbroner famously called a “slightly imaginary Sweden”, with its low levels of inequality and strong welfare state. However, Sweden is facing challenges common to other western democracies – a post-crash recession; an ageing population putting public services under strain; higher levels of immigration opening the door to political populism.

So local areas in Sweden are looking to innovate by drawing on the strength of civil society. As the Economist describes, “the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 has put huge extra pressure on the system”. To overcome this, Gothenburg has built a partnership with nine non-profit organisations, designing a ‘local collaborations’ programme to welcome and integrate unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the city. The InnoSI evaluation found that the process of the partnership and the planning of what services each organisation could contribute meant that the needs of the unaccompanied minors could be clearly specified and understood more effectively. The partnership enabled more flexible and timely implementation of the policy, with more integrated services, provided for the same money. The InnoSI analysis concluded that collaboration with civil society increases capacity and enhances the relevance, quality and acceptance of policy interventions, thereby benefitting public agencies, civil society and service users alike.


These European examples show that though the social challenges we face are great and our public resources diminished, we have a huge resources in the power of our local communities. But to truly harness this, we need the government to commit to letting go, and put local areas in charge of finding solutions to their own problems in their own ways.

Locality has been involved in a number of initiatives in recent years that have reinforced our belief that change needs to be driven from the ‘bottom-up’ – from working with enterprising community organisations who are driving change in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country; to supporting local authorities through the long-term process of culture; to delivering central government programmes to trial new approaches, like the Community Organisers programme.

We now need to build on these experiments and others to make public policy ‘local by default’; rather than a range of small-scale pilots and one-off programmes, we need put user engagement, community capacity building and sensitivity to local place at the heart of everything we do. It’s time to move localisation from the margins to the mainstream.


[1] https://cles.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/No.-20-New-Localism.pdf

[2] Localism Under New Labour, Guy Lodge and Rick Muir

[3] http://extra.shu.ac.uk/ndc/downloads/general/A%20final%20assessment.pdf

[4] http://extra.shu.ac.uk/ndc/downloads/general/A%20final%20assessment.pdf

[5] http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/wp06.pdf

[6] https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/people-shaped-localism

[7] http://conservativehome.blogs.com/files/conservative-manifesto-2010.pdf

[8] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/whitehall-monitor/Whitehall%20Monitor%202015%20-%20Chapter%2012.pdf

[9] https://mycommunity.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Our-Place-evaluation-report-1.pdf

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/49515/social-justice-transforming-lives.pdf

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/49515/social-justice-transforming-lives.pdf

[12] Ozan, Jessica, Chris O’Leary, Susan Baines and Gavin Bailey (2016). Case Study: Troubled Families. Innosi: WP4 Case studies.

[13] The Institute of Community Reporters (2016). Stories of Family Life. Available at: https://www.communityreporter.net/feature/stories-family-life

[14] Department for Communities and Local Government (2016). National Evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme: Final Synthesis Report.

[15] NEF

[16][16] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/may/15/graph-doom-social-care-services-barnet

[17] http://innosi.eu/

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