Editorial: Why everyone is talking localism

Localism is at the centre of the debate about public service reform, where charities have a vital role to play and should make their voices heard, writes Stephen Cook

Despite government rhetoric, outsourced service delivery remains dominated by big private companies, writes Stephen Cook
Despite government rhetoric, outsourced service delivery remains dominated by big private companies, writes Stephen Cook

Localism, in various formulations, is getting a lot of airtime. The shadow charities minister, Lisa Nandy, talked in her recent Third Sector interview about the voluntary sector being at the heart of a new approach to local commissioning of public services. Jon Cruddas, the party's policy chief, spoke to Acevo's recent Gathering of Social Leaders conference about the value of community, collaboration, partnerships and inclusiveness.

The government has been talking about localism since it came into office - indeed, it's one of the few definable parts of the big society, in that the Localism Act became law in 2011. This gives people and organisations new rights and powers, the value and effects of which have yet to be conclusively assessed.

One reason for this focus on localism is the realisation by all concerned that there isn't going to be enough public money in future to provide the public services people expect. Nick Hurd, the charities minister, talks in this context about social investment and new ways to bring private sector money into the equation. Graham Benfield, until recently head of the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action, calls for "co-production", where all sectors work together with the state as enabler.

Perhaps the strongest arguments for localism come from Steve Wyler, the outgoing head of Locality. This body recently produced a persuasive document advocating "why local by default must replace diseconomies of scale". It argues that significant savings can be made by providing individuals with the social services they need rather than standard packages.

Wyler puts his finger on a major disconnect in government: its rhetoric emphasises localism and it supports good initiatives, but outsourced service delivery remains dominated by big private companies competing on unit costs to a centralised brief.

What's to be distilled from all this? Mainly that it's the crux of the debate about reform of public services, that the voluntary sector has a vital role to play and that it should make its voice heard at every opportunity.

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