As part of the inquiry, we intend to hold public evidence sessions with thinkers and practitioners from local government, with academics and think tanks, and with Ministers.
Our inquiry coincides with work by the Communities and Local Government Committee into localism. We are interested in some of the same issues, and some of our work may overlap, but our focus is different. We are co-operating closely to avoid duplication. It is likely that some people and organisations will want to respond to both inquiries.
This paper briefly sets out some of the issues and questions we are likely to cover in our inquiry. We would welcome responses to any of the questions raised.
Desirability of a codified settlement
Opinion on whether a codified settlement for local government should be a priority has been divided, as the Communities and Local Government Committee found in its 2009 report on the Balance of Power between Central and Local Government:
A number of our witnesses have argued in favour of a constitutional settlement for local government utilising ‘constitutional’ legislation. They see benefits in terms of a stable framework in which to operate, and greater clarity about local government’s local place-shaping role. Above all, the legislation would be something for local government to deploy if it felt that central government was encroaching too heavily on its turf. As Lancashire County Council put it, "the ebb and flow of the local government debate over time points to a need finally to formalise the role of councils in the national political settlement."
Local council witnesses from Birmingham City Council and Manchester City Council, for example, wanted additional powers to enable them to make an immediate difference "rather than going through a period of constitutional change."
Sir Michael Lyons made clear in his report that he was "not seeking to enshrine the constitutional position of local government in law. Laws and agreements do not necessarily create relationships, and the initial steps towards the developmental approach need to be given time to bed in."
Similarly, constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor argued in his evidence to us that "the main barriers to a new localism are not constitutional, but political and cultural. The achievement of a new localism depends not upon a new constitutional settlement, whatever that may mean, but primarily upon a sea-change in public attitudes."
Current Government policy
The current Coalition Government has promised to "promote decentralisation and democratic engagement, and ... end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals", as well as to promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups, and to give councils a "general power of competence".
This general power of competence would be intended to give such authorities the ability to act in the best interests of their communities, even if specific legislation does not give those authorities the power to take the action they intend. Thus, no action (except for raising taxes) would be beyond the power of local government, unless that action was prevented by law.
A "power of general competence" has been previously recommended by many local government organisations, including the Local Government Association, as well as by the Communities and Local Government Committee. It is expected that the power will be included in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill due to be introduced in the autumn of 2010.
The Coalition Government has no formal policy on codifying the status of local government, but the Deputy Prime Minister has told the House of Commons that he "strongly" agrees that there is now "an opportunity to codify and formalise the relationship between central and local government."
Two existing documents have been mooted as a possible basis for a codified settlement between local and central government.
The Central-Local Concordat of December 2007 between HM Government and the Local Government Association "establishes a framework of principles for how central and local government work together to serve the public."
- Central-Local Concordat, 12 December 2007
The Communities and Local Government Committee found in 2009, however, that "nothing much appears to have changed as a result of the Concordat" and that none of their "local council witnesses felt that the Concordat had made any difference to central-local relations". A number of their witnesses had called for the Concordat to be provided for in statute.
The Communities and Local Government Committee itself recommended that the 1985 European Charter of Local Self-Government, ratified by the Government in 1998, should be put on a statutory footing.
The Charter commits the ratifying member states to guaranteeing the political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities. It provides that the principle of local self-government shall be recognised in domestic legislation and, where practicable, in the constitution.
In Scotland, as well as concordats with UK spending departments, there is also a central-local concordat between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which underpins the funding to be provided to local government over the period 2008-09 to 2010-11.
Relations between the Welsh Assembly Government and Welsh local government are governed by the Local Government Partnership Scheme, as required by the Government of Wales Act 2006.
- Should the relationship between central and local government be codified?
Should codification of the relationship between central and local government be considered in the context of a wider constitutional codification?
- If codification is appropriate, what degree of independence from central government and what powers should local government be given?
- How, if at all, should the status of local government be entrenched, or protected from change by central government?
- What consequences should codification or other change in the relationship between central and local government have on the accountability of local authorities to elected local politicians, local people and central government?
- Does the devolution settlement provide a relevant model for a possible codification of the status of local government?
- Are there examples of constitutional settlements between central and local government in other countries that are relevant to an appropriate model for the UK?
- What is the value of existing attempts to codify the relationship between central and local government, through: the Central-Local Concordat or the European Charter of Local Self-Government? Should this Charter be placed on a statutory footing?
- How would the "general power of competence" for local authorities proposed by the current Government affect the constitutional relationship between central and local government?
How to respond to this paper
The Committee would appreciate receiving responses to any or all of the questions in this paper. Although some of the questions could be answered by a simple yes or no, it would be valuable to have fuller responses in order for us to understand the points being made. Some respondents may wish to concentrate on those issues in which they have a special interest, rather than answering all of the questions. Respondents may also wish to suggest any proposed recommendations for action by the Government or others.
Written responses to this issues and questions paper will be treated as evidence to the Committee and may be published. If you object to your response being made public in a volume of evidence, please make this clear when it is submitted.
Responses should be submitted by Friday 3 December by e-mail in Microsoft Word or rich text format. If you do not have access to email, you may send a paper copy of your response to the Clerk of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Committee Office, First Floor, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA.