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Archbishop of York Calls for More Powers for Local Councils


6:45pm 22nd April 2013

The Archbishop of York has called for more powers to be given to local councils and has criticised the political system.

Speaking to the Annual Civic Dinner of Sunderland Council, Washington Old Hall, Dr John Sentamu said:


Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening. It is a privilege to be with you on this occasion and I am looking forward to taking some questions from you at the end of this address.

I come as a Christian with a passion for Social Justice which inevitably leads me into the choppy water of politics, but as my friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: “When I hear people say politics and religion don’t mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.”

The title of my talk is “Freeing Local Democracy from the shackles of Central Government”. Already I can see some of our friends from the media sharpening their pencils, but I am a firm believer in every individual having their part to play in contributing to the common good. It is not something we should shy away from.

It seems the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, agrees with me to a certain degree.

Speaking as the Localism Act became law in 2011, he said:

“It marks the biggest shift in power since the Victorian age – reversing 100 years of creeping centralisation and it restores a gaping local democratic deficit.”  

“This is unequivocally and unquestionably good news for councils and communities – power is flowing back into their hands.  They are firmly back in charge of their own future.”

I am sure you all find such sentiments reassuring, but the challenge for us is how to put this principle into action.

Representative Democracy is something in which we all participate, it is not something which is done to us.

Tonight I want to suggest to you that whatever the Government’s policy is towards local democracy, we need more than a change in the law if we are going to see lasting change enacted.

Real democracy is not decided by a diktat in Whitehall – it is informed, nurtured and realised in the lives of ordinary people living in the local community.

We need a fundamental shift in the way that we understand local democracy in this country.  This in turn involves us sitting down and having a long, hard think about our values and priorities and what we really want to see happening in our communities.

The five key measures in the Localism Bill, intended to decentralise power, are listed as: Community Rights; Neighbourhood Planning; Housing; General Power of Competence and Empowering Cities and other local areas.

According to the Government, such moves would give more freedom and flexibility to local government and give new rights and powers to local communities, making it easier for them to improve local services and save important local facilities. 

But with rights come responsibilities. Power must be tempered by wisdom and compassion.

As with all legislation, there have been some good effects and bad effects with the Localism Act. I am sure that you will wish to share with me your own experiences later this evening. Talking, listening and learning is the only way that lasting improvement can be made.

I hope that by sharing together, we may be able to see a new way forward.  Let me start by sharing some concerns with you.

First of all, I am concerned about the loss of vision. Where is “The Big Society”, that once, much-trumpeted flagship policy of David Cameron?

Whatever people may say, “The Big Society” was at least based on the idea of a cohesive society, in which people looked after one another and had a common vision. The Church has been doing this for over two thousand years – so it is always good to hear others converting to this view!

But now this concept of The Big Society appears to have vanished without trace.  No politician refers to it any more. Was it simply a sound-bite, a ruse that played well with focus groups but that was easily pushed aside when put under greater scrutiny?

The cynic might suggest that it wasn’t so much a celebration of a thriving society where everyone looks out for their neighbour, but rather a ploy to get community groups to pick up the cost of local government cuts.

However, I hope that it was in fact a genuine attempt to move society forward – aiming to unite communities in a common cause.

We do need some unifying method for deciding what our priorities are and what we want to achieve in and for our communities.

I am a big believer in community involvement and proper representation through the democratic process. We need accountable structures and citizens ready to serve their communities for the greater good – regardless of individual political beliefs. Civic mindedness should not be a thing of the past.

This is more important than ever now that pressure on resources is so tight and there are such hard choices to be made regarding local budgets.

We need more honesty when discussing local priorities and how they should be delivered. One of the areas crying out for greater transparency is taxation.

Should local councils be able to raise local taxation on a significant scale, if they choose to do so? This issue has failed to be properly addressed by all central governments over many decades. When central government starts putting in place caps on local council tax, or calling for referendums on such issues, I feel obliged to point out that we already have a referendum on who makes the decisions in the Town Hall – we have it every four years and it is called an election.

Everyone wants to be popular, but short-termist views that ignore the long-term needs of the wider society are as unhealthy as they are unhelpful. We cannot afford to encourage “electoral myopia” – it is a serious disease with long-term consequences if not tackled properly at its root.

A symptom that participation in government at local level is not working as well as it should do is seen in the low turnout in elections. This is true in our local elections and also in other elections such as for Europe and for the local Police Commissioners. In South Wales there was one polling station which had no voters whatsoever. How can that be ‘democracy’?

The turnout figure in the last local government elections of 31.1%, which was lower than the comparable turnout of 35.1% in 2008. Turnout at the mayoral Referendums was only 29.2% (The Electoral Commission 2012).  These low figures are an indication that people do not feel involved in the decision –making process in their local communities and we should take heed of this.

The failure over several years to uprate the Council Tax bands has also limited local income severely and Council Taxes have become increasingly regressive. But no one has the political will to grasp this electorally unpopular measure.  This in turn, limits the powers of local councils and their ability to make a difference.

One of the reasons why we have failed to free local democracy from the shackles of central government is that we have not tackled these issues openly.  It is only by facing them in the clear light of day and getting all those whom they affect to get involved, that we shall achieve a solution which is truly democratic and can be owned by local people.

We need to acknowledge a massive proportion of local government finance still derives from national government and not from local taxes or other local fund raising. Also, a high proportion of the local budget is tied to statutory obligations.

I have nothing against the voluntary sector or social enterprises playing their part in providing services, however there needs to be a level playing field.

Currently there is a built-in bias in the system towards contracting out to the private sector as opposed to the voluntary sector.  The implication of this is that organisations such as churches, who play such a key role in providing vision and cohesion for communities (and frankly, for picking up the pieces when other local solutions have failed) are unable to take a lead in providing these services in their local communities.

Private is not always better than public. It does not guarantee excellence or a good standard of care. Remember the mess private banks got us into. Or those private businesses which acquired publicly owned businesses like British Steel, made their profits, and then moved on.

In all this, I would argue that we need far greater honesty about the decisions we must make. For too long, we have had a number of elephants lurking in the rooms of our local government decision-making process.  They are there but are not acknowledged. 

First of all, there is the matter of taxation. 

Low tax is populist but the fact is that if you want to maintain services, you have to balance the books. In simple terms, if you want decent public services then someone somewhere has to pay to fund this.

The government has frequently said that it wants to take more people out of taxation and this has been reiterated by politicians at local government level.  But it raises the question – who picks up the tab? 

When it comes to housing, you will be all too familiar with the desperate need to build more affordable housing, especially social housing.  But this requires the release of land and it will inevitably create greater pressure on local communities and their services.

Many local authorities have thousands of people on their waiting lists for social housing.  I am sure you have similar issues here. Many are living in cramped conditions with little hope of moving into a property which will better meet their needs.

We need to take all those matters into consideration in our local planning. It may be populist to oppose all new developments, but then you must also explain why you cannot provide adequate accommodation for those in need.

A healthy society is one where we look out for the most vulnerable in our community and leave no-one behind. We need a society where all can flourish.

The Bishop of London reminded us at a service which was the focus of some controversy earlier this week, of the questions about the nature of society and the view, which a former Prime Minister had offered, that interdependence was what constituted our common life.

Whilst this is true, a focus on localism will emphasise not only interdependence but also interaction. At the heart of interaction is initiative and a shared sense of purpose.

How do we balance the concept of more control at local level with the criticisms of creating a postcode lottery? When we look to the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales and moan about how we still pay tuition fees or for our NHS prescriptions, we must also recognise that those authorities choose to charge more in general taxation to cover these costs. It is not cost-free.

How do we make economic decisions in ways which are fair?  What are the principles (if any) on which we are making cuts?  And is there a line beyond which we are not prepared to go in protecting certain core values or groups within our communities?

In York, I was Sponsor of the Fairness Commission.  This independent Commission was launched in July 2011 as an independent advisory body to the City of York Council on ways to increase fairness and reduce inequality.

We made a conscious decision, based on all the available evidence, to advise the local Council to prioritise essential services and protect as far as possible, the values of social justice.

We know from our own experience that when cuts of over £20m need to be made from local budgets that, inevitably and regrettably, either cuts need to be made from some services or taxes would need to increase – or a combination of these two things.  The sad fact is that politicians, of whatever persuasion, will all too readily promise the earth in order to win favour in the short term.  However, as an independent Fairness Commission, we felt we had a responsibility to tell people about the crisis being faced, without sugar-coating the pill.

The Commission listened to groups and individuals, gathering written evidence through invited submissions and engagement in public meetings, and debated issues such as health, housing, family, community, social care, education and skills and training.  We also looked at employment, crime and safety, democracy, sustainability, the environment and the economy.

The first phase from July to November 2011 included an open public consultation with residents and groups about inequality issues in the city, an analysis of independent research evidence about inequality in the city and a review of the Council’s budget, strategies and priorities.

This work resulted in the publication of the Commission’s Interim report: A Fairer York, A Better York, on 28th November 2011. It contained 10 Fairness Principles and 30 Recommendations to help the City of York Council make its budget decisions in a way which would be fair and protect services for vulnerable people.

From this the Fairness Commission made seven headline recommendations.  These included: to make York a Living Wage City and inspire Yorkshire to become a Living Wage Region and also to deliver an inclusive approach to economic development that creates jobs, tackles worklessness and ensures all of York’s citizens can contribute and prosper.

However this process was set up to inform local decision-makers – it was not set up as a rival to the Council or to undermine the work that was already being done to tackle inequality. It is right that locally elected representatives take the final decisions and are held accountable at the ballot box.

Why do I argue that the Fairness Commission provides a good model for local democracy?  Because it was a way of engaging with the local community across the board.  We engaged honestly with all those concerned in setting out the issues, fairly and squarely and letting them decide about the difficult choices which had to be made.

The Fairness Commission gave us a way of thinking about and articulating the core values which underlay the choices we would make for our local community. This involved asking searching questions about how we wanted our communities to work.    What were the principles on which we were going to make these decisions? Which were the poor and vulnerable groups which needed protection?

The Fairness Commission provided us with a way of getting people to discuss local priorities which could then inform decisions made in the Council Budget.  It certainly wasn’t an easy process – for example, the very number of meetings we held to ensure everyone had their say made it quite labour intensive – although all the Commissioners volunteered their time and expertise for free.

There are two other points which I would encourage you to bear in mind as we consider how we can strengthen local democracy.

First of all, we need to remember that good local government is not just about addressing people’s material needs but those things which we all need to thrive and flourish as human beings. As Jesus said, when tempted by the Devil to turn the stones of the desert into bread: “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4).

It is vital that as a society we protect our core services and provision for those who are vulnerable.  But we also need to recognise that we also need those things which will feed the soul as well as the body, which inspire us and provide a vision of our common humanity. This is why continuing support and encouragement of the arts and sport are so important. I know that, in common with all local councils at this time, you have had to face difficult decisions about your public spending.

I was delighted to learn Sunderland Council has taken the decision to protect at least part of your Arts budget – I know another Council not far from here took the decision to scrap its £1.2m core arts grants as part of £100m savings. We can argue about who is to blame for such drastic action but in the end we are all poorer as a result when we lose our cultural heritage in this way.

Let me tell you a story in this context to explain why this is so important. 

As the beginning of the Second World War, faced with the threat of bombing in London, Kenneth Clark,  the then Director of the National Gallery in London (not the MP for Rushcliffe!), ordered all the paintings to be taken and stored for safety in a disused mine shaft in North Wales.

However, at one of the lowest periods of morale during the War in 1942, he ordered that one painting a month should be brought to the gallery so that people could visit it. These were chosen by members of the public and the first painting they chose was Titian’s work Noli me tangere (Don’t cling to me) in which the risen Christ appears to Mary Magdelene. 

Looking at this painting, I can see why they chose it.  It is a powerful image of resurrection hope – of new life – of life coming out of death. Perhaps in these times, when we too feel that some of the life has been squeezed out of our local communities because of the great pressures we are under, it too can bring us a message of hope.  The virtue of Christian Hope is still as important today as it ever was – perhaps even more important.

But this story also shows that we don’t live by bread alone.  We need those things which feed our human spirit – which remind us of those deeper values which really matter and nourish the springs of wellbeing.

The second point I would like to raise with you before I draw to a close is the Church’s own record of involving local people in the transformation of their communities, often in very difficult circumstances.  These include work which the Church Urban Fund has done to bring about regeneration, working with local people and often in partnership with local authorities.

In recent years, the Plunkett Foundation has produced guidelines and best practice for setting up of community shops in churches and chapels for all the Christians denominations.  There are some wonderful examples of this including churches converted so that they can provide shops, post offices and other core amenities for communities as well as providing a place of worship. 

The Church is working with its partners, for example the Plunkett Foundation and the Arthur Rank Centre, to identify and develop models of community based provision that have been proved to work, to avoid the mistakes of the past. A number of churches increasingly provide a base for other essential services in the community, including Citizen Advice Bureaux and Credit Unions. I have been struck on this Diocesan visit today by what a fantastic job the churches in Durham Diocese are doing in reaching out alongside others in caring for those in their communities.

The Church of England is willing to work with government and local authorities to facilitate and support sustainable and vibrant communities through its unique network of communal buildings and local structures.  However, as the Church of England pointed out in its response on this matter, it is important that there is realism.

Vibrant and sustainable communities can flourish with the help of voluntary organisations such as the Church and its partners, but the conditions for this must be right.  Too many projects have been launched in the past with insufficient administrative and technical support. As a result they have been unable to achieve their aims and have failed, wasting enthusiasm and communal energy as well as public money. 

The Church is working with its partners to dignify and develop models for community based service provision – proven models that avoid the mistakes of the past.

We believe this development of successful and proven models can be a mechanism for the entire voluntary sector to maximise their benefit to society. 

One of my predecessors, Archbishop William Temple once said: “The Church is the only organisation that exists for the wellbeing of its non-members.” And he was absolutely right. The Church should always be about going out into communities showing love in action, rather than shutting the doors and talking to itself.

We need to get away from the political knockabout we have in this country where one group sits on one side of the Chamber and another group on the other. Our society is too important for that.

As the Prime Minister famously said: “We are all in this together.” If that is the case then let us have an open discussion, putting hope and trust at the heart of our aspiration. Let us all be on the same side

Do you remember the Olympics?  Wasn’t it great to put our partisanship to one side for the greater good of our nation?  We need a common purpose. Let us not forget that we are and always will remain ‘Team GB’.

Justice and compassion must be at the core of all our decision-making.  How do we stand up for those who have no voice in our community?  What can we do to ensure that at grassroots level people have the ability to help themselves out of poverty?  This means investment in education, training and jobs.

How can we create greater fairness in our communities? Societies that are more equal tend to be happier.

Let’s ensure people are valued for who they are, in our local communities, through the ways in which we engage them in the vital decisions which affect all our lives. We need to treat everyone as valued individuals, lovingly and fearfully created by God.

Aim high – with God everything is possible!

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Don’t go where the path may lead; go where there is no path and blaze a trail.”

Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy your dinner!

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