The Total Place Initiative ("Localis" 6.11.2009)


The "Total Place Initiative" (TPI) will identify all the public resources spent in 13 pilot authorities and spend another £5m to see how the locality can be better managed. The initiative will probably survive the election since it attracts a wide political consensus. Clearly it could cover most of the issues raised by the Localis Report "Can Localism Deliver", and by David Cameron's Policy Paper "Returning Power to Local Communities". But before running riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions we should pause to consider an earlier "Total Approach" which I helped to promote some 37 years ago!


Because effective localism changes government - and paradoxically cannot happen without forging a new strategic dialogue with the centre. Indeed localism must address a vacuum; problems which arose from the lack of any formal written British constitution or guaranteed local powers. Thus while global economic trends have encouraged centralisation everywhere, in Britain this has proceeded apace and in a relatively unchecked way. And paradoxically, too, while some Ministers have always wanted to decentralise (and seek relief from their accumulated burdens at central levels) they have found it impossible to do so while, of necessity, retaining "strategic control" at the centre.  This was already a national problem before Peter Walker announced his "total approach" in 1972!


And it was much the same idea; to take six cities and to examine the "total resources" being used and "how to transform them". But Ministers move on, new governments take over and bureaucracy has an inherent resistance to change. Meanwhile the macro imperatives towards centralisation continued without any constitutional resistance - all exacerbating problems of coordination in an overstretched Whitehall, itself inherently weak in any interdepartmental response. Thus Walker's 1972 "total approach" was fiercely resisted under Ministers that didn't want to change much. Officials assigned different objectives to pilot cities and delegated progress to consultants - all militating against reaching general conclusions let alone addressing the major constitutional weakness!


TPI will have a job avoiding a similar cul-de-sac.  Meanwhile it is depressing to find that I proposed some decades ago all the ideas within the recent Localis publication "Can Localism Deliver"! Indeed in 1971 Michael Heseltine considered my plans "Utopian" for "one stop shops" and for co-ordinated local information systems. And no Minister has been consistent in encouraging locally elected institutions. Thus even the 1980 Local Government Act had one section for  sensible new local expenditure based planning while another promoted centrally imposed Urban Development Corporations. Two staples held the Act together!


Then, too, from 1974 onwards both the main Parties used housing to bypass councils as we promoted the voluntary and privatised state - and elected local authorities lost much executive "hands on" knowledge and their direct feel for local services. Grossly generous 100% capital and 100% revenue deficit central grants were initially deployed to housing associations, and other local services followed a similar route. Even the co-operatives we pioneered in the late sixties, were deliberately manipulated in party political battles against local councils as the centre actually attacked local government at its electoral and financial roots!  Finally we arrived at the present forest of centrally financed quangos; some competing with each other within the local budgetary haze.


My proposal to Ministers in 1972 was a system where the new local authorities (1974) would rely on local taxation and charges and the usual equalisation rate support grant. Routine services would be devolved to the most local area management levels but I also envisaged a Cabinet Office operated system of strategic joint resource planning for financing any really exceptional concentration of problems or tasks across the country. Later Scotland proposed a similar notion of joint resource planning with the central government - with most remarkable staff work by Scottish officials at that time. But all this called for a degree of central coordination that was not forthcoming.


And the strategic initiative had already been lost in Ted Heath's otherwise imaginative and bold 1970 reorganisation of central government. That had also set the scene for the later 1974 reorganisation of English local government; the largest since 1888. And Ted Heath had indeed recognised the need for a central strategy unit - which became the famous Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) in the Cabinet Office. But, crucially, this CPRS had no ongoing or systematic link to the public expenditure round (PESC) - and no strategic capacity is worth a damn outside the budgetary system. The same was true for the later No 10 Policy Units.


Thus the 1974 local government reorganisation and subsequent reorganisations all failed to resolve central local relationships in any secure way. Thus, too, it was no great tragedy when Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC and Metropolitan Counties. Without any clear "strategic financing" capacity there was simply little conclusive for "strategic" counties to do that could probably not be done just as well at some other level or some other way!  Meanwhile the local fog became general throughout the land.


It still seemed a good idea to at least record all money spent locally and so I set up a voluntary team to do this across all English local authorities from 1984 to 1986. This was well before the Internet but we user-friendly routines which could show anybody who was getting what across all jurisdictional or geographical boundaries. We were routinely used by diverse people and agencies and by the House of Commons Library and I had extended the system to Northern Ireland before being stopped by new 1986 DTI regulations which required that Whitehall itself seek the maximum commercial return on any tradeable official data.


That perverse 1986 ruling may shortly be reversed as the 2009 EU "INSPIRE Directive" comes into effect. And so there's no good reason why this aspect of the TPI should be limited to the 13 official pilot areas. If my small voluntary team could cover the whole country officialdom could surely do the same now! Better still just let the charity "My Society" loose on the data and the sectoral and the constituency implications of public policy will soon be clear to all.


But all this leaves one hurdle blocking the way to a truly "Total Approach" - this time at the centre of our constitutional architecture.  We still have no systematic parliamentary approval of the money used to run the country! Parliament must have the ability to validate and approve strategic financing otherwise there will be no effective decentralisation. Ministers will go on playing with the bricks themselves and the Bedlam of crude "sofa government" will continue. Here the Treasury's present "Alignment Project" hardly begins to fit the bill - and neither does Kenneth Clarke's "Power to the People" Review.  We now face a structural problem at a critical time for consensual government. Only a total reform will do!


Des McConaghy



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