Decentralization: The rise of the local welfare state

The decentralization trend in the social domain has materialized in many European countries (1). Although decentralization in general is met with some sympathy, it is also much debated (2). If decentralization is discussed, rather often implicitly is assumed that duties and responsibilities, e.g. if it comes to social and health care provisions, are best served at the local level (3). In the following brief survey, this assumption is explored by examining the UK Governments localism policies. Does the local welfare state emerge from these policies?

Decentralization: fuzzy, political concept

Clarke and Cochrane (4) listed four significant localism concepts. The first is that localism is a positive disposition towards decentralization of political power. Such a disposition is the classical liberal presumption that decentralization to the local level better serves local needs, is more efficient, less bureaucratic and more democratic. The second positive assumption is the communitarian interpretation. Local community and civil society are “some kind of mediating institutional layer through which responsible action, right living, and good welfare outcomes may be achieved …”. Other concepts of localism are the actual decentralization of political power and the assertion of locality by citizens, businesses, politicians and other interest groups. Localism can also be seen as a policy strategy to use “locality as a space of engagement”. This space produces a variety of ends, such as: “regulation of the capitalist economy; efficient organisation of welfare provision; and government of the population.” From these varied concepts, Clarke and Cochrane conclude that localism is a “fuzzy, political concept with many uses and meanings”.

Decentralization as a strategic policy instrument

The localism policies of the British government can best be categorized as a mix of classical liberalism and communitarianism. This is not obvious at first sight. Analyzing the localism ideology of the UK government, different political aspirations unfold (4). UK localism is supposed to free local government “from central and regional control.” On the one hand this presupposes the abolishment or reduction of all kinds of central, regional and local institutions, on the other it allows local authorities more freedom e.g. “to choose their own structure of governance” and to raise their own money “by charging and trading.” The second aspiration is to make local authorities “more directly accountable to local people.” Localism should also enable the delegation of local governmental powers to a “variety of actors presumed to be local.” In short, for the UK government the political and institutional organization of accountability and provision are central to their concept of localization. This concept is best explained by the use of locality as ‘a space of engagement’: the efficient organization of welfare provision on the local level. But this doesn’t explain for the mix of classical liberalism and communitarianism in the UK’s localism ideology. This assumption needs further exploration. This will be done by examining two decentralization instruments: the Localism Act 2011, and more specifically the Social Care Act 2012.

Localism Act 2011: deconstruction of the welfare state

The most important policy instrument of decentralization in the UK is the Localism Act 2011. This act is a legal framework aimed at institutional change (4): “… the regional government machinery of the 1997-2010 Labour government is dismantled, to be replaced by more diffuse institutional structures such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and City Deals, and localism replaces regionalism as a discourse of spatial governance …” New is also that the Localism Act prescribes the cooperation of all concerned institutions on a local level (section 110; 5). Moreover, the decentralization process is accompanied by appeals to citizens to take more responsibility for their own health and welfare, their neighborhoods and their respective lesser well of co-citizens (6). It’s this mix of de-individualization through institutional change, and individualization through participation and responsibility, which is characteristic for the neoliberal communitarian approach (7). To dismantle bureaucracies and replace them with diffuse institutional structures, and the simultaneous call to citizens to take more responsibility for them selves, their loved ones, and their neighbors, exemplifies this specific localism ideology. A close review of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, confirms this assumption.

Health and Social Care Act 2012: de-privatization

Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWB’s) are another example of decentralization in the UK. They are a product of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. As of April 1, 2013 this act “… transfers responsibilities for public health in England, at the local delivery level, from primary care trusts to local authorities … 152 health and well-being boards are being established in every part of England as the primary multi-organisational governance arrangement to implement delivery, facilitate public reporting and assure the continuing public accountability of public health services in the future.” (8). Here it seems as if the pendulum of decentralization swings back as responsibility is taken away from the private non-profit sector and given to local authorities. Albeit the fact that these local authorities have to share their responsibility with a HWB. So it’s obvious that for the local authorities in the UK there is not much free choice left to structure their own governance in the social and healthcare domain.

A radically different model of care is required

Moreover, in Humphries’ view the decentralization reforms of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 “… fail to address … long-term pressures and trends …” (9). These pressures and trends refer to societies developments, which require a radically different model of care “… whereby growing numbers of people with chronic health conditions, frailty in old age and dementia receive long-term care that is much more personalised and coordinated across services and professional disciplines, and delivered closer to home, with a greater emphasis on self-care and the use of technology.” (9). These arguments plead a strong case for the decentralization of political responsibilities to local authorities in the social and healthcare domains. But not for the appeal to citizens to take more responsibility for their own health and welfare, their neighborhoods and their respective lesser well of co-citizens. People with chronic health conditions, or who are in old age, or suffer from dementia and receive long-term care, are not prone to the communitarian call to action. Moreover, these people need professional care, and should not be dependent on medieval charity practices. To make things worse, the decentralization process in the UK comes with another catch. It lacks funding.

Decentralization by cutting local public funding

The Dutch social scientists Verhoeven and Tonkens (10) express optimism about the “substantial investments” of the Big Society agenda. But their optimism about the funding of the decentralization trend in the UK is not shared by many of their British colleagues. Although the UK government devolved central, regional and local powers to a widespread variety of local actors, the claim that power is being put back in the hands of local communities is questionable. This becomes especially clear “when local government funding is added to the mix” (4). Clarke and Cochrane parade an endless number of recent national cuts of local public spending. To name but a few: a 26% cut in revenue funding from 2010 to 2015, a 45% cut in capital funding to local government and a 60% cut in capital funding for schools, a cut in social housing of 50%, a cut of 34% in flood defense and coastal erosion, a budget cut of 8% on local roads, etc. (4). Besides, the pressures on local social care, welfare and health provisions will continue to rise taking in account that the NHS funding will have “a productivity gap of as much as £20 billion by 2016. Local government grants will reduce by 28 per cent over the same period. (9). This leaves local public authories emptie-handed. Unless they are willing to commit political suicide by raising local taxes on their constituencies.

Place matters, but not without proper social investments

Clarke and Cochrane (4) point out several major social and political trends that hamper the success of HWB’s, and the decentralization policies more in general. The most important is the lack of a proper analysis of the problems that are faced by modern bureaucracies: “The problem today is less one of general principle (e.g. equity of service provision across space) and more one of control over certain particularly sensitive policy areas e.g. taxation, economic development, and access to education and housing.” Local welfare is also much more than the neoliberal promise of the breakup of bureaucracy, or the responsibilization of local communities and the introduction of market principles. Local welfare “frames a new policy paradigm, expressing the belief that ‘place matters’ when it comes to welfare provisions … Typical of these service-oriented policies is that they require strong institutional and professional presence in the daily living environment of people: place matters.” (1). Without a proper problem orientation, without any structural room to maneuver, and without proper funding, the decentralized welfare state might very well never emerge.


  1. Trommel, 2013.
  2. Antrobus, 2012; Ayres & Pearce, 2013; Clarke and Cochrane, 2013; Grover, 2012; Jacobs & Manzi, 2013; Jones & Stewart, 2012; Layard, 2012; Mitchell, 2012; Schmuecker, 2011; Verhoeven & Tonkens, 2013; Wiggan, 2012.
  3. Bovaird, 2012; Clark, 2011; 2012; Murphy, 2013.
  4. Clarke & Cochrane, 2013.
  5. Ross & Chang, 2012; 2013.
  6. Newman & Tonkens, 2011; Bannink, Bosselaar & Trommel, 2013.
  7. Schinkel & Van Houdt, 2010.
  8. Murphy, 2013; see also: Colin-Thomé & Fisher, 2013; Durose, Richardson, Dickinson, & Williams, 2013; Mumford, 2013; Parker & Gallagher, 2007.
  9. Humphries, 2013.
  10. Verhoeven & Tonkens, 2013.


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