Friday, 11 November 2011 19:19

Localism ‘doomed’ unless Whitehall changes

Written by  Ruralcity Media
Localism ‘doomed’ unless Whitehall changes

GIVING people more say in running local services will require big changes in the attitude of London-based civil servants, warns a study.

The government’s commitment to 'localism' is likely to fail unless Whitehall sheds its deep-rooted culture of centralism, it suggests.

Regional Funding Allocations (RFAs) were introduced to enable English regions to have more control over spending decisions and key policies better, the report says.

But the scheme failed to deliver the flexibility regional economies need to become more competitive the evidence.

The finding is based on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) at Bristol University.

It suggests the experience of RFAs can help the government understand the barriers to the current ‘localism’ agenda.

As part of the study, researchers led by Sarah Ayres conducted interviews with senior Whitehall officials.

They found a growing awareness of the need to boost economically weaker regions and improve services through decentralisation and empowerment.

Whitehall officials viewed the first round of RFAs in 2006 as generally positive.

But the researchers said RFAs were “tinkering at the edges” rather than achieving a major transfer of funds or power.

They also found that central government departments were not in agreement about which functions should be handed to regional bodies.

Local disputes between regional bodies continued to weaken the confidence of Whitehall officials during this process.

Many regional officials outside London felt there was still too much central control, the researchers said.

Most respondents agreed that Labour’s tentative step towards establishing regional budgets had failed to deliver the discretion and flexibility required to develop policies at a local level.

However, budget allocations were a powerful way to motivate different regional bodies to work more closely together.

The coalition government stopped the regional level of control after coming to power in May last year, saying bodies such as regional development agencies and government offices lacked legitimacy.

Nonetheless, the coalition has acknowledged a need for greater local control over budgets to achieve economic growth and more effective use of resources.

National and regional respondents to the study agreed that a longstanding culture of centralism in Whitehall which would be hard to overcome.

"Given this, it remained to be seen whether the coalition’s plans to empower local areas would be realised", said Dr Ayres, who is based at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies.

Given the severity of the economic challenges facing the UK, a more robust approach to promoting sustainable economic development was needed.

“At the best of times Whitehall is reluctant to relinquish control, and at a time of financial crisis departments are likely to become even more risk-averse.

“This has the potential to hamper efforts towards localism.”

The full report English Regionalism: Rhetoric or Substance? Evaluating Decision Making Procedures for Regional Funding Allocations can be downloaded by clicking here.

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