Now is the time to promote devolution

Tony Blair is soon off on his summer holiday and the House of Commons is in recess from next week. Civil servants might be tempted to take a deep breath after the roller-coaster of the past few months, and hope that the dog days of August will give them some time and space before the autumn onslaught.

But will – or should – the summer be an easy time for local government? No. In the autumn, there will be a white paper, the Queen's Speech – with the likely promise of new local government legislation – and ever more intense discussions about who spends what, and how much, in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007.

The latter will set a new framework for the relationship between councils and their communities, and that between local authorities and central government. 

Particularly concentrating our minds on local government this summer is Ruth Kelly's suggestion to the Prime Minister that we are at a ‘tipping point' for devolution.  That's progress.  But not progress enough. So now is the time to show conclusively that devolution is the best answer – for better public services for local people; greater sustainable economic growth for our cities, towns and villages; and better involvement of communities and individuals in what matters to them. 

The most effective way of demonstrating this is through the personal relationships that local politicians and council staff have with people.  When I walk to the Tube station every morning, the man who sweeps the pavements gives me a cheery ‘hello'.  It's remarkable what a smile, rather than a scowl, can do to boost perceptions of the council and its staff. 

That perception feeds directly into reputation, which will in turn affect people's support for the devolution project.  

Councils' PR teams have a huge role to play here, in helping councillors and council staff alike to interact with communities. MORI research shows us that many more council staff could be ambassadors of devolution if only they better communicate what they do for people.

We cannot afford to rest on our laurels in the summertime.


Oona Muirhead is Local Government Association director of strategy and communications

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