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July 2, 2008

Community Empowerment in England

Hazel Blears – the English Communities Minister – will be talking to the Local Government Association`s annual conference this week. The deal on offer is “if you get more power from central government – are you prepared to share that power with the communities you serve?”

The Guardian

Addressing the Local Government Association’s annual conference next week, Blears will not mince words in her personal crusade of community empowerment. It was nurtured in her home city of Salford, where she was a local councillor, deeply frustrated it seems by the old Labour top-down machine. ‘With my own roots in local politics, grounded in the streets and estates of Salford, I’m a firm believer in devolution to the very local level,’ she told parish councillors recently at their national conference.
At the LGA, she will adopt a tough and tender approach – ritually praising councils for improving their efficiency while, at the same time, challenging them to let go and devolve more power to communities. For many council leaders, this will doubtless feel a bit rich. As LGA chair Sir Simon Milton points out, ministerial rhetoric extolling the virtues of devolving more powers from the centre has dismally failed to match reality on the ground.

‘There are things the government has done which should be given credit – pulling back from target-driven performance indicators, reducing ring-fencing [of specific grants] – but, on wider, deeper issues on devolution, I think we are still waiting,’ he laments.

Blears will have none of it, accusing some councils of lacking in ambition and failing to use powers already at their disposal, such as exploiting the prudential borrowing regime and trading services and activities to raise extra cash. She is combative, if a touch patronising.
‘I genuinely think local government has come a long way in terms of professionalism and ability to deliver, and we are at a bit of a moment in time when there is an opportunity for central government to genuinely devolve more powers to local government,’ she insists in a wide-ranging interview with Public Finance.

But there is a caveat, revealing a hint of frustration. ‘The challenge for local government is “are you up for this?” The corollary of greater devolution is clearer leadership, better delivery and the third bit – crucially important to me – a willingness on their part to devolve more power to communities. It’s a deal, basically. If you get more power from us, are you prepared to share that power with the communities you serve?’