Queen’s Speech 2014: Bishop of Leicester on local government and civic identity

..without some risk, innovation and courage in this area, local government will continue to be starved not only of cash but of the civic talent it desperately needsBishop of Leicester, 5/6/14

On 5th June 2014 in the first of the responses from the Bishops’ Benches to the Queen’s Speech, Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester focused on the need for revitalisation of local government. Citing political disconnect and the pledge in the Queen’s Speech to deliver a fairer society, the Bishop called for a creative reinvigoration of the relationship between central and local government, not least in the areas of health and social care. He cited Leicester’s plans for the reinterment of Richard III as an example of good local partnerships that also help create a sense of shared local identity. 

14.04.01 Bishop of Leicester


The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I want to take the opportunity of this debate to raise some questions about the balance of power between London and the regions in our country today. The gracious Speech emphasised the new financial powers to be implemented for the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. While this is welcome, it highlights even more acutely the need for urgent action to address the very different environment for local government in England, in spite of what the Minister briefly said to us about resourcing local economic partnerships.

It is surely now vital that more power should be devolved from the overly centralist and siloed Whitehall closer to communities that have a stake in the success of places and to where a real link between politicians and positive action can be formed, as the report of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, recommended. My conversations in the east Midlands point to a clear consensus that the balance of power between local and central government is not right. Councils are now placed in the impossible position of taking responsibility for abolishing front-line services that are both wanted and needed by local communities. One of the clear messages of the recent elections is surely that a large part of the population has begun to lose confidence in our political processes and that trust has dangerously eroded between the electorate and its representatives.

This suggests that we have reached a moment requiring both leadership and courage: first, in recognising that localism has become an empty word, especially to practitioners, who regard local discretion as little more than a myth. This is demonstrated by the national Planning Inspectorate’s habit of taking big decisions in the teeth of local opposition and the capping of council tax levels. Secondly, leadership is required locally to achieve an effective appraisal of local democratic systems which are so multilayered and overlapping that people increasingly struggle to relate to them. We need now to make progress in rationalising the mishmash of unitary and two-tier structures and, frankly, to reduce the number of locally elected representatives. Would it not be worth considering whether a form of proportional representation might be appropriate for local authority elections in view of the one-party states that now appear in several cities and London boroughs?

These reforms are not best left to some future Parliament but require attention now before the attenuation of local government reaches crisis levels, with even more unbalanced growth across the United Kingdom and even more damage to public service outcomes. The challenges we face are too complex and particular to be left simply to broad national solutions. Rather, we need to draw much more effectively on the creativity and civic energy of local communities. We must think differently about what it means to be a citizen, seeing ourselves not simply as consumers of services but as genuine partners in providing them. This means facing and challenging the unwillingness of many in national government to lose control over public services and decision-making, because they still harbour a fear that local institutions lack the required capacity or capability.

Yet without some risk, innovation and courage in this area, local government will continue to be starved not only of cash but of the civic talent it desperately needs in order to make the scale of transformative changes required of it in the years ahead. At the top of these changes and concerns is of course the funding of adult social care, which clearly is an issue that now troubles most of the population in one way or another. While we have all read headlines about gaps in local authority funding, it is salutary to think that to date none of them have really picked up on the additional costs which the 150 top-tier councils will face if the Government do not meet the cost of capping adult social care, whether on the Dilnot formula or not.

Surely we are now at the point at which it is urgent for the Government to recognise that these costs cannot be laid upon local authorities without bringing the whole structure of local government crashing down. Allied to this is the equally urgent need to face and work through the complex issues surrounding integration of the NHS and social care services. If this is left simply to vested interests—whether political, clinical or bureaucratic—a once-in-a-generation opportunity will be lost, and the scare stories about black holes in the NHS budget, quite apart from those in local authority budgets, will continue to haunt us.

Noble Lords will perhaps forgive me for reminding them that Leicester, at the heart of my diocese, is indeed to become, after protracted legal proceedings, the final resting place of Richard III. This has focused the attention of all of us, especially our city and county councils, along with Leicester University, on the need for closer partnership working at many levels if all the necessary plans and preparations for reinterment with dignity and honour are to be put in place. Such partnership working—on many other matters, of course, as well as this—must be the pattern for the future and will require new attitudes and work patterns with more flexible, outwardly focused and engaged local authority personnel learning how to work with and trust other public and private sector institutions more creatively.

The Richard III experience has also reminded us of the significance of place for all our citizens. People are interested in their story, their heritage, their narrative and character, as well as their prosperity and prospects. On these Benches, we might call this the soul of a place. Here, too, we find a particular role for the churches in partnership with local authorities as significant leaders in creating a sense of identity, and stimulating opportunity, quality of life and cultural richness.

In the City of Leicester and the County of Leicestershire, our city and county councils have taken an effective lead in presenting the story of the Battle of Bosworth and the death and discovery of Richard III, and in creating a major new civic space around our cathedral. All of this speaks to the importance in our national story of this controversial king.

Successive Governments have acknowledged the need to reduce pressure on local government and provide greater local flexibility, but this need is now critical. None of us wants to face a future without an affordable plan for adult social care or to accept a culture that accommodates an increasingly atomised and fragmented public service provision, leaving frail and vulnerable people, in particular, increasingly exposed and anxious. As devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom progresses in this Parliament, so the challenge of resourcing and empowering local authorities in England must be faced and responded to. The gracious Speech’s pledge of Her Majesty’s Government to continue to work to build a fairer society surely requires the revitalisation of local government as an essential part of that pledge.