The dilemmas of decentralisation

Yesterday was the final day of the Independent Living Fund (ILF). This money, which has been distributed by central Government to disabled people since 1988, is being devolved to local councils. The controversy surrounding the change shows how devolving more power and money to local authorities is not always as easy as it sounds.
As the name suggests, the purpose of the ILF is to help people live more independent lives. Local authorities provide funding for social care for disabled people, but this only goes so far. For example, budgets rarely stretch to 24 hour care in people’s homes, because residential care can cost around half as much. The ILF has topped up social care funding to enable more people to live at home and lead active lives, including volunteering and paid employment.

The rationale for the change is that one pot of money at local level is more efficient than two pots split between different tiers of government. Putting the two together is designed to help local authorities meet local need more effectively. But as I said on Newsnight last night, what worries disabled people is that the money is being devolved with no strings attached. There are no guarantees that it will be spent on helping disabled people live more independent lives.

If that money leaks into other budgets – such as child protection or social care for the elderly – then many more disabled people may end up in institutional care, rather than living independently in their own homes. Early evidence suggests it might – an FOI investigation by the BBC and Disability Rights UK found that only a third of councils are currently planning to ring fence the money for the same group of people.

So what should people who believe in giving people more power and control over their lives think? Stick with the centralised pot that guarantees individual rights? Or trust local democracy to set the right priorities and deliver better results than a national scheme? The dilemma reminds me of this paper written by Harvard academic Michael Sandel. Sandel argues that Liberalism in America has shifted from protecting states’ rights, as a bulwark against a domineering national government, to emphasising universal individual rights, delivered by a necessarily powerful central government. The paper is a reminder that Liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, is not always a friend of localism.

Back to the ILF, the decentraliser’s instinct is to devolve budgets and decision making. In principle, bringing two pots of money together ought to create scope for better value for money; allowing local people to set priorities ought to be a good thing; and creating space for innovation can be a route to better outcomes. So is there a way of doing this that could meet the concerns of disabled people?

Perhaps the Government already has the answer. In other areas of policy, the Government devolves budgets and decision-making when local areas show that they have a plan to use them effectively. As the Chancellor has said, his ‘door is open’ to cities that want to come forward with plans to use similar powers devolved to the Northern Powerhouse. This approach recognises that decentralisation should be a careful process, not a big bang. The first stage is ensuring that local areas are ready to make use of new powers and money. That doesn’t mean that the every area must have exactly the same plan but it does provide a safety mechanism as the centre gradually relinquishes control. Further down the line, there can be scope for areas to set more of their own priorities, not just deliver on goals set in agreement with the centre.

This is the model that could have been adopted with the ILF. The budgets could have been devolved just as soon as local areas demonstrated a plan to support disabled people to live more independent lives. This would have created scope for different approaches, but provided some safety mechanism for the next few years. In the long-term, local authorities could then have been given more discretion to move towards the freedoms that they are about to acquire. This would have created time for local politics to work properly – with disabled people and others making the powerful case they have for the money (and perhaps more) to be used support independent living.

The point in Michael Sandel’s paper is that individual rights are created through social solidarity. They come through people caring enough about one another to put resources into things like the ILF. In the long-run, this kind of solidarity can be built at a local as well as a national level – perhaps more easily. But politics needs time to work. And the people who receive money from schemes like ILF need a safety valve in the meantime.