On first glimpse this post title is not too different to the post about politics we posted on Monday. Isn’t democracy and accountability just another element of the political context local government is facing?
We don’t think so.
The long term future of local government is far more dependent on what we do with the structure of democracy and accountability it operates in than any policy change dreamed up by this or any other Government.
Local Government, as it currently exists has elements of success and failure pre-programmed into it. On the success side of the ledger local government has proven to be the most responsive and quickest changing part of Government. It has, especially in recent years, proven able to make quick cuts and rapid investments, to commission imaginatively and to provide a series of complex local services to its communities in a fairly well received way.
On the other hand, local government is becoming increasingly less democratic at the local level. People don’t vote for their local councillors in anywhere near the numbers they vote for their MPs (we don’t even get levels as high as the Voice!). Even where local people are turning up to vote my perception is that in many areas the effort expended to capture that vote, by the local politicians, is rapidly decreasing.
What’s more in many ways it is not hard to understand why the voters don’t care and the politicians don’t try as hard as they once might have. Whilst Governments of all stripes might declare their support for localism the reality is that national politicians fear losing control, and the postcode lottery that might follow, even more. This leads to ring fences, legislative controls, guidelines, targets and other requirements dominating the public service provision. The current Government have done a little to reduce these but with 25% budget cuts coming it is very hard for local authorities to really do much more than the statutory services they are obliged, under the law, to provide.
Equally, local government in theory is predicated on the idea of local difference. This is fine in theory but we are also a universalist sort of country. I’m pretty sure members of the public would be ok with different street cleaning routines in different parts of Britain but the three biggest services in a local authority are all ones which many would consider needing a consistent approach; those being social care for children, working age adults and older persons .
So, in many ways it can be argued that local government is overly centrally driven, lacking in democratic legitimacy and whilst innovative and nimble lacking in a unique mandate.
The above is an intentionally negative view and laid out to spark debate; we love local government but are genuinely fearful that in twenty years local councils will just be glorified quangos or foundation trusts without the real democratic underpinning so crucial, in our minds, to what government is meant to be. We are, despite everything, passionate supporters of true democracy.
One of the reasons for out optimism is that there is light on the horizon in the form of two clear broad alternative visions currently being posited for this organisational and political malaise. Option 1 is broadly Steve Hilton localism, captured within the context of the Big Society and option 2 is empowered municipalism, as proposed by the ever energetic Graham Allen MP.