National context - the changing face of local government
Local government faces a period of significant change driven by budget cuts and rising demand for public services. By 2020, councils are likely to be very different.
The Government’s plans to reform public services, as set out in the Open Public Services White Paper, are likely to bring further changes as councils move towards a smaller strategic core with more services delivered at arm’s length through a wide variety of delivery bodies.
The White Paper sets a vision where individuals and communities have much greater choice and control and public sector organisations are the commissioners of services rather than direct providers. The aim is to decentralise power and control to the lowest appropriate level whilst increasing the range of suppliers. For services provided to individuals, this means that the power to choose and commission services will be provided through mechanisms such as direct payments. For services used collectively by communities, local people will be given opportunities to run services themselves. In other areas services will be subject to open commissioning with the intention of opening up public services to other sectors and to create competing businesses out of public sector organisations.
The White Paper sets the context for many of the other emerging national policies and agendas. The Localism Act, which became law in November 2011, reinforces the Government’s commitment to decentralisation with measures that shift power from central government back to individuals, communities and councils. The Act includes measures to reform the planning system, change social housing policies, improve community empowerment through rights to bid to buy local assets and run local services. It is also about decentralisation and strengthening local democracy.
Other key policies and new legislation follow a similar theme. The Public Bodies Bill provides ministers powers to abolish or reform public bodies and has led to demise of the Regional Development Agencies and the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships. The Education Bill and the Academies Act provide wider choice and decentralised powers through enabling schools to become academies, free from local authority and national government control, and opportunities for groups to set up new free schools in areas where there is parental demand.
Similarly the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act makes provision for greater accountability through police commissioners and local Police and Crime Panels. We are lobbying hard to ensure that Cornwall is given fair representation on the local Police and Crime Panel for Devon and Cornwall because initial plans show that Devon has unduly large membership. The Protection of Freedoms Bill is intended to protect people “from unwarranted state intrusion in their private lives” and to revoke previous legislation seen as damaging civil liberties. The Health and Social Care Bill passes commissioning powers to GPs and abolishes Primary Care Trusts. New local Healthwatch organisations will speak out on consumers’ behalf and act as agitators for choice. Cornwall has been selected as a Healthwatch pathfinder to test out how best this new organisation will operate.
National public policy will influence the future shape and operation of all councils and public services. We are already developing initiatives to meet the Government’s determination to:
- Lift the burden of bureaucracy – by removing the cost and control of unnecessary red tape and regulation that restricts local action
- Empower communities to do things their way – by creating rights for people to get involved with, and direct the development of, their communities
- Increase local control of public finance – so that more of the decisions over how public money is spent and raised can be taken within communities
- Diversify the supply of public services – by ending public sector monopolies, ensuring a level playing field for all suppliers, giving people more choice and a better standard of service
- Open up government to public scrutiny – by releasing information into the public domain, so that people can know how their money is spent, how it is used and to what effect
- Strengthen accountability to local people – by giving every citizen the power to change the services provided to them through participation, choice or the ballot box