- In addition to proposals for new bodies operating above the level of local councils, some people argue for decentralisation of some powers to neighbourhoods below the level of existing councils.
- Local councils often cover large populations. This means that those influenced can be distant from their decisions.
- On some issues, the people who live in a local community may be best placed to make local decisions. On other issues, decision-making on a larger scale might be more effective.
- There are various ways in which power might be devolved down to more local neighbourhoods.
The main ideas for reforming local government that you will hear about in the news at the moment focus on creating new bodies that are larger than existing councils. But some people think we should go the opposite way, decentralising power from local councils to even more local neighbourhoods, such as towns, villages, or suburbs.
Not everything can be decentralised to more local levels: decentralisation of powers can be combined with keeping some powers at local council level and developing larger city (or even bigger) regions to deal with other issues.
What’s the basic idea?
Local councils often cover large areas or large populations, which means that decision-making can often seem very distant from local communities.
In the Assembly North region, for example, the Sheffield city council covers a population of over half a million people and includes places like Stocksbridge and Dore as well as Sheffield itself. Barnsley council includes Penistone in the west and Bolton upon Dearne in the east. Doncaster council stretches from Mexborough to Thorne.
Local Council Populations:
People who favour decentralisation to local neighbourhoods argue that some matters could better be dealt with at a more local level. They argue this would make it easier for local people to get involved in decision-making and for decisions to reflect particular local needs and priorities. There are various different ideas about how power could be decentralised further.
Creating smaller local authorities
The most radical option would be to create new, smaller local authorities to replace the existing councils. If new ‘combined authorities’ are created to take over large-scale issues, the case for smaller local authorities looking after more local issues may be stronger. Many of the current local authorities have been created by combining council areas that were previously separate.
In the Assembly North area, for example, places like Penistone, Wath-upon-Dearne, and Mexborough all once had their own councils within the West Riding of Yorkshire.
Giving more powers to parish and town councils
The second option is to give greater powers to parish and town councils. Parish councils represent villages or rural areas and town councils cover towns. They can also be called community, neighbourhood, or village councils. Parish and town councils currently have limited powers and limited budgets. According to the National Association of Local Councils, which represents parish and town councils, these councils:
‘provide and maintain a variety of important and visible local services including allotments, bridleways, burial grounds, bus shelters, car parks, commons and open spaces, community transport schemes, community safety and crime reduction measures, events and festivals, footpaths, leisure and sports facilities, litter bins, public toilets, planning, street cleaning and lighting, tourism activities, traffic calming measures, village greens and youth projects’
One option for reform would be to give extra powers to existing parish and town councils and to create new community councils in areas that do not currently have them.
Decentralising powers to local area committees
A third option is to stick with existing councils (unitary councils, district councils, and county councils), but decentralise the way in which they work. Some councils make some decisions through neighbourhood committees whose members are the councillors from each particular area. Most of the areas covered by Assembly North do not have neighbourhood committees. In the Assembly North area, only Barnsley currently has local area committees. They have a budget, but they have few powers.
Some other areas – such as Sheffield have had area committees in the past, but have abandoned them in the face of the need to make budget cuts. This reflects the fact that decentralising power in this way does generate some costs. One reform could be to introduce local area committees where they do not currently exist. Another would be to increase the powers of local area committees.
A final way of decentralising power to local neighbourhoods would be to require councils to hold more events.
One option is to hold meetings that anyone can attend in order to decide certain matters. Some local councils – such as Sheffield and Rotherham – have tried this approach. It has the advantage of allowing anyone how wants to take part to do so. The disadvantage is that a lot of people do not take advantage of these meetings and often complain that those who are able and willing to attend a meeting may not be representative of the whole local population.
Advantages and disadvantages of decentralisation
Decentralising decisions to neighbourhoods has the advantage of giving greater local control. On some issues, the people who live in a local community will be best placed to make decisions that reflect their needs and wishes. Making decision-making more local makes it easier for people to get involved.
On the other hand, some local decisions – such as decisions on building new roads or houses – typically affect a much wider area, so need to be considered more strategically. Some services are best organised on a larger scale so that they can be provided efficiently and effectively. And decentralisation may mean that the process of decision-making itself costs a little more to run.
Where to from here?
- If more combined authorities are created, then one option will be for smaller authorities to replace local councils.
- A second option is to give more powers to parish and town councils.
- Another option is for local councils to devolve more decisions to neighbourhood committees.
- Still another option is for councils to hold more citizens’ assemblies in local communities.