By Joshua.Chambers

28 Mar 2012

Communities and Local Government Committee chair Clive Betts has known Bob Kerslake for years, and doesn’t doubt his commitment to localism – but some departments are less enthusiastic, he tells Joshua Chambers

Just over a year ago the streets of Sheffield were thronged with angry protestors. They pushed their faces up close to the ring of steel barriers surrounding City Hall, and bellowed abuse at anyone who entered the Liberal Democrat spring conference inside – including your own CSW correspondent.

Seeking refuge somewhere quieter, I snuck down a side street and into an empty Turkish restaurant. Rather than being seated, however, I was shouted at for “what you’ve done to this city” and ordered to leave. It was only when I removed my yellow lanyard and explained that I was a journalist that the owner relented and allowed me to purchase his food.

Clive Betts, one of Sheffield’s MPs (as, of course, is Nick Clegg), giggles an idiosyncratic laugh when I tell him this tale. Betts is a quiet, self-contained character, and had led me wordlessly to an empty room in Portcullis House for this interview. On the mention of his home town, however, the Labour MP’s manner changes. Betts outstretches his palms, leans back in his chair, and chuckles as he shares stories of old ladies shaking their Zimmer frames in protest at the coalition’s cancellation of a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters. This was a totemic issue, he says, and contributed to the Liberal Democrats losing control of the council last year in a landslide election defeat.

Betts himself was leader of the council until elected as an MP in 1992, and he now chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee. Its scrutiny is important to a whole array of government departments, because many of their policies fall under the umbrella of ‘localism’: the coalition’s drive to devolve power from central government down to councils and, beyond them, to communities.

Critiquing Kerslake
The permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Sir Bob Kerslake, also has a Sheffield connection. Kerslake was chief executive of the city council from 1997-2008, so Betts is uniquely placed not just to scrutinise his work at the DCLG, but also to pass judgment on his track record.

Does Betts think Kerslake did a good job in Sheffield? “I think he did,” he replies. “Bob was a very powerful figure, and he reshaped and set clear priorities for the organisation. He also extended the council’s reach into the wider community, including the business community, so the city was working together.”

In the 1980s, Betts explains, businesses in Sheffield had a “torrid time” as the steelworks closed: “The council and business were virtually not speaking to one another, except through insults in the local press.” While Betts claims some of the credit for repairing relations, he notes that “Bob came in and worked more at that, and he was very highly respected – not merely by councillors, not merely by people who worked on the council, but also by people in the wider community, who met him and saw his efforts in a very positive light.”

Betts provides a useful insight into the approach Sir Bob is likely to take in his role as head of the civil service. “Bob doesn’t have a dramatic style,” he comments. “It’s often so low-key that you don’t notice it, but he leaves no-one in doubt that he expects to get things done, and I think he develops a confidence that things will happen. It isn’t just about reports and talking about things, it’s about making things happen, and he certainly brought that to the council.”

It’s helpful for a DCLG permanent secretary to have experience of working in local government, Betts thinks. Further, former local authority leaders have organisational management experience which is useful to any permanent secretary. “If you look at it in numbers terms, employees in the [DCLG] are actually quite small in number compared with those working for a large council like Sheffield,” he says. “The scale of direct management is actually less in the department.” It’s also worth noting that Betts had more direct power as leader of Sheffield council than he has ever had as an MP, having never attained ministerial office. With his election as committee chair in 2010, though, he’s gained the ability to exercise substantial influence over a broad swathe of government policies.

Chairing the committee
Betts seems to have settled into a role as part-observer, part-academic, and part-campaigner. On taking up the chairmanship of the committee, he started by examining the new government’s relevant policies. “You naturally respond to a government coming in with new ideas and measures,” he comments.

He’s right that it’s the duty of a select committee to examine the government’s plans, but some chairs have told CSW that they want to take a more proactive approach to shaping government policies – and many were unhappy with the responses their committees received when making policy suggestions. On that front, though, Betts is satisfied.

Now, Betts says, his committee has considered many of DCLG’s policy ideas, and is shifting its focus to examine implementation. DCLG has a busy policy agenda, encompassing everything from dismantling England’s system of regional governance to devolving powers down to local communities. Betts says that he and his colleagues will be watching the department’s progress, with the intention of examining how far government has achieved its objectives.

In conducting its enquiries, the committee is likely to take a firm line on permanent secretaries’ accountability: Betts backs the forthright line adopted by Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge, who argues that accounting officers remain accountable for their decisions even after they’ve left the job. “We don’t exactly pay them small amounts of money to be permanent secretaries. I think they ought to be held to account for the decisions that they make,” he says.

Accountability is particularly important to Betts’ committee because of the government’s desire to devolve powers from central government – both to local government, and directly to communities – through its localism agenda. He thinks that the effect of localism on accountability has yet to be properly understood and addressed. “We’ve got to get it right, because [the risks to] accountability shouldn’t be used as a reason for not [devolving power],” he argues. Otherwise he suggests, permanent secretaries might – for example – resist giving local authorities the freedom to pool certain budgets, on the basis that doing so would blur their own accountability for the spending of that money.

Localism knowledge
The key problem for Betts’ committee is defining what exactly localism means. He sees localism as about both driving powers down from the central to the local authority level, and local authorities passing powers down to local communities. In short: “Local authorities are an incredibly important part of localism, they are at the heart of it – but they aren’t the end of it.”

Betts’ committee has been “very critical of the fact that departments haven’t all got the same agenda: they aren’t working in the same direction, at the same speed, towards localism. Some of them don’t even recognise that it exists.” He cites the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as an example. The committee asked local council leaders, from Conservative-run Surrey to Labour-run Barnsley, where they thought the devolution of responsibility could create better outcomes. All identified the issue of unemployment, Betts says. However, the department still believes that the “payment-by-results model is how you get the best value and that’s the end of the story”, he adds.

Even where departments are committed to localism, they don’t all agree with Betts’ definition. He emphasises passing power from the central to the local level but, for example, the Department for Education has concentrated on empowering individual service providers. The DfE’s apparent commitment to localism is misleading, says Betts, because its approach weakens local authorities and brings powers back to the secretary of state.

“Is it real localism to say to a school: ‘You’re on your own, and if anything goes wrong, you’ve got a secretary of state you can go to in Whitehall?’” he asks. “That seems to be a very odd form of localism, where you’re leaving people to sink or swim by themselves.” Betts doesn’t think that local authorities should have a hands-on role in every school, but he does believe that they should offer over-arching support, especially on issues such as providing resources for children with special needs, ensuring a fair funding and admissions system, and challenging schools when they’re not performing well. “I think local authorities’ roles are dismissed too lightly by education ministers,” he argues. “I just don’t see clear thinking about how you allow schools to operate in innovative, individual ways, but equally give them support at a local level and pull schools together to support each other.”

He does praise the Department of Health for devolving power over public health policy; but on the whole, Betts thinks there needs to be a more uniform approach to localism in government. Partly, Betts thinks, this is best achieved by changing the culture in Whitehall to ensure that ministers don’t try to interfere in local issues – even when media criticism tempts them to do so.

Hands off!
Betts thinks that communities secretary Eric Pickles is notably conflicted in his approach to localism. “He’s willing to pass legislation to give up powers, but culturally, he can’t resist [interfering] – whether it’s how often your bins are emptied or how much grant [councils] give to voluntary organisations,” he says. Pickles abolished the ring-fencing around council funds, so councils do have more control over spending, but “having done so, he wants to tell councils: ‘You’ve got the freedom to do what you want, but this is how I think you should exercise it’,” Betts says, dubbing the approach “centralised localism”.

Devolving control over revenue-raising powers is a crucial part of localism, Betts believes – but there’s little sign of that, with both the coalition and its predecessor meddling with the ostensibly-local council tax. Labour capped it, while the coalition has offered a central grant hike in exchange for a two-year freeze.

“Why don’t we just leave it to local people to decide? If they don’t like the rates, they can elect somebody else,” Betts comments. “We bribe people with their own money.” On the current council tax freeze, Betts warns that the increased grant to councils won’t continue for the second year of the freeze – so next year, councils are going to have to find both inflation-related cost increases, and the money to continue the freeze without a subsidy.

Planning action
One area where Betts does agree with increased ministerial control is in the planning system. The coalition merged the recently created Infrastructure Planning Commission with DCLG’s Planning Inspectorate to give the secretary of state direct control of infrastructure planning decisions. “Under Labour, I expressed some real concerns about taking away the ultimate-decision making power from the secretary of state, who… has to come to the House of Commons and explain the decision he’s taken,” Betts says.

Meanwhile, the coalition intends to relax planning regulations through the introduction of its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Betts warns that “one of the problems of relaxing planning is that you often get poor development. If you talk to serious developers, they want to know what’s on the site next to them. They don’t want to spend money on a good scheme if there’s a terrible one next door. Equally, people do not want to come and sink their money into a city centre or town centre if there’s a free-for-all and anyone can open up on a green field with much lower costs three miles away, taking their trade.” The government commissioned TV star Mary Portas to save Britain’s high streets; it shouldn’t allow the relaxation of planning regulations to wreck them, Betts warns.

Harbouring housing concerns
For followers of local government, a perennial issue is house-building, which this month has once again become a flashpoint following the announcement of plans to increase the discount incentivising people to exercise the ‘Right to Buy’. Betts doesn’t oppose the scheme, but he does harbour real concerns about its viability.

Private house-building has never exceeded about 150,000 dwellings per year, he says, while household formation is running at about 235,000 annually. Betts’ committee is currently producing a report on this issue, so while he isn’t keen to break his own embargo (the report will be published after Easter), he suggests that the housing shortage –which drives up prices – suits housebuilders rather well. “There are doubts that have been expressed to the committee that, even if the finance [mortgages and commercial loans] came back, the housebuilding industry is comfortable building a certain number because that’s where it maximises its profits. There are issues to be resolved in that regard.”

LEP of faith
Meanwhile, government has changed the structure of local and regional government, scrapping Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and replacing them with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) built around clusters of local authorities.

Betts agrees there were problems with RDAs, particularly around their boundaries. For example, Sheffield’s RDA – Yorkshire Forward – didn’t include some of the key towns within its ‘travel to work area’, so the economic issues of the city were never properly addressed. LEPs, though, have been constructed around key cities and their hinterlands, so Sheffield’s partnership includes Chesterfield and Bolsover – previously covered by the East Midlands agency.

As perhaps is to be expected of a former council leader, Betts is a fan of local councils – and while he acknowledges – unlike LEPs – RDAs had the budgets and scale to invest in larger projects to boost local economies, he believes that it’s sensible to get them working together more closely on infrastructure.

Meanwhile, though, there’s another localist reform that’s worrying him: the introduction of directly-elected local mayors in major cities. “I’m happier with a council leader who’s held accountable by a number of councillors every day of the week, than a mayor who’s elected once every four years. In that case, you might as well have an elected president in this country, rather than a prime minister.”

Labour’s localism record
While on the topic of presidential government, it seems fitting to bring up Tony Blair. Did New Labour do enough on localism? “Not sufficiently, although we were beginning to relax [central controls] towards the end,” he replies. “We came in believing that a lot of councils were pretty inefficient and weren’t addressing the issues. And whether or not we went about it the right way, the targets and comparisons and value for money studies we did have improved efficiency.”

Now, though, a political consensus has emerged around the localism agenda. At the end of the last administration, he says, “the mood was changing, the words were changing, and now there is a significant all-party change of view on localism. If you’d have said 15 years ago in the chamber: ‘I think local government ought to be given more powers’, most people would look at you as though you were talking madness.”

Cynical civil servants might question whether localism will last: will politicians be tempted to centralise powers again? But Betts at least does believe that the UK must become more localist, “because ultimately, we are one of the most centralised democracies in the world.” The major sticking point is the complexities within public opinion, he suggests: “You say to people: ‘Do you think local people should decide what happens in their area?’, and people say ‘Yes’. Then you say: ‘Do you think people should have the same standard of services wherever they live in the country?’, and people say: ‘Yes’.”

If the media begin focussing on the variable service provision that will inevitably follow a period of genuine localism, this is likely to cause ministers to reconsider their localist commitments, Betts thinks. But regardless, he’ll be watching – and trying to ensure that government sticks to its localist guns.

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