The reverse localism of local Compacts

adam pickeringWhy are we seeing an increase in support for top-tier Compacts but decreasing numbers of district/borough level Compacts?

This is one of the questions that cropped up when analysing the results of the 2012 Compact Voice Annual Survey. This blog (the second in a series of blogs exploring interesting trends from the survey results) will take a closer look at this question and put forward some possible answers.

If I were to tell you that there is a clear trend towards fewer district / borough level Compacts in favour of more unified top-tier Compacts, would you be surprised?

In an era of increasing localism, where the government wants to see power percolating down to local communities, you would be entitled to be.

Okay, let’s start with the facts.

Up until last year Compact Voice did not attempt (not formally anyway) to comparatively collect data on Compacts.

Until its closure in March 2011, the Commission for the Compact displayed lists of all local Compacts along with contact details on their website – which we have been able to replicate, and hopefully improve upon.

The Commission listed in excess of 300 local Compacts, but on inspection it became clear that the list was either inaccurate or out of date: Many of these local Compacts were linked to district councils that no longer existed after the creation of new unitary authorities.

As such, the first robust numbers Compact Voice has of how many local Compacts exist are from last year, when we got in touch with our contacts across England to corroborate our list.

We found that there were 203 active local Compacts, and a further 6 that appeared to be inactive. In the following 12 months - between our 2011 and 2012 surveys - the number fell to 182, a 10% decrease in a single year. However, this did not result in lots of new areas not being covered by a local Compact, and arose because of many second tier level Compacts signing up to a county wide agreement.

But what might have caused this trend, especially given the emphasis on localism seen in the policy landscape?

There are a number of possible reasons. The first thing to note is that the context over the past few years has been one of extraordinary evolution for local Compacts. Naturally, many authorities saw the renewal of the national Compact in 2010 (as well as the “refresh” in 2009) as an opportunity to reinvigorate their Compact.

But Compacts are, and should be, agreements that reflect the needs and aspirations of partners at a particular time, and effective local Compacts are responsive to, and are shaped by, the circumstances in which they are agreed. As such, the fact that the average countywide Compact was renewed in 2009 is very significant indeed, particularly for those district and borough councils which exist within the county.

Surely the Localism agenda ought to have had an influence by strengthening district/borough Compacts? Well, it seems that whilst Localism has been high on the agenda for many local Compact groups, the presence of other, more intractable factors in the minds of local partners has prompted a profound reshaping of the local Compact picture into something more streamlined and top heavy.

So what are the circumstances in recent years that have influenced such a counter-intuitive trend?
Clearly, the elephant in the room here is the bleak financial picture faced by local partners on all sides of the equation.

The 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review saw local authority grants fall significantly in some areas - which, when mixed in with a likely increase in the demand for services, makes for some tricky economic times. Partners looking to renew a local Compact over the past couple of years will undoubtedly have done so with this current financial context in mind. For some districts, shelving their own Compact in favour of a newly renewed (and often strengthened) county-wide Compact may have seemed like a good option - alternatively, it’s possible some were looking for a way to drop their local commitment.

At this point, I should say that I am in no way denigrating the value of county-wide Compacts.
We have numerous examples of excellent work being done by county-wide Compacts including recent case studies in Cumbria and Wiltshire. I do not have strong opinions on the wrapping up district/borough level Compacts where signing up to strong top tier Compacts is an option – there are strong arguments on both sides.

On one hand, it is clear that effective district/borough level Compacts can equally provide excellent value -just take a look at our recent case studies on South Lakeland and Braintree.  At this level, it is possible for Compact groups to be especially targeted in their work, developing personal relationships and forging links that lead to better outcomes for all. And when these second tier Compacts are able to work well alongside their top tier Compacts, as seems to be happening in Essex, we have what looks like an ideal system.

On the other hand, we have to be realistic. There are some district/borough Compacts that never got off the ground and have sat on a shelf collecting dust since they were agreed. Mixed metaphors aside, abandoning a dormant district/borough Compact in favour of an active county Compact would surely represent an improvement.

Furthermore, if a small district/borough council is unable to provide resources to support its Compact, there is an argument to say that it is better to defer to a well-supported county Compact than to tarnish the commitment to Compact principles by allowing it to recede into the background.
Whether you see a trend towards fewer district/borough level Compacts as a positive change, or a regression, it’s easy to argue that it doesn’t seem like an expression of the localism agenda which is at the heart of so much of the recent policy announcements. Those who argue that the government’s agenda of fiscal tightening will clash with its ability to deliver this localism agenda may well see local Compacts as a case in point.

Empowering local communities means helping local partners to work together instead of working in isolation, and that might need a forum where partners can discuss issues on equal terms. For example, the job of engaging town and parish councils in cross-sector partnerships is challenging even at the second tier level, but for a county-wide Compact the task of engaging with this most local branch of the state might even be insurmountable.

The coalition government has taken some important steps to implement both the localism agenda and the Compact, and we have often said that local Compacts are a good example of localism in practice. But whilst there are certainly places where these forces are mutually reinforcing, some might interpret cuts to local government budgets in some areas as having the unintended consequence of pitting one against the other. Whether you sign up to this analysis or not, it seems that whilst government policy is aiming to facilitate the development of increasingly local partnership working, the trend amongst Compacts over the last year has been to move in the opposite direction.

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