Whither Local Government?

A friendly disagreement

Simon Jenkins is a well known fan of elected mayors and of devolving more power to local areas. It is therefore not particularly surprising that his response to the recent riots was as follows:

In this crisis, our cities need local leaders with real power. The vacuum of authority below our centralised state leaves the police with the impossible task of keeping order alone

Jenkins’s argument is that the over centralised state has left local government enfeebled and thus totally reliant on leadership from central Government. In his most provactive paragraph Jenkins argues:

At a time of crisis the TV stage is taken by a police officer and central government minister. Councils are run by enfeebled party machines and their “leaders” are politicians whose means of selection and election gives first loyalty to party rather than community. They feel no obligation to public leadership. Suggest to a council leader that he stand for direct election without the carapace of party, and he shudders at the thought. These figureheads are mere agents, factotums, of central government.

Normally, I would be in agreement with Jenkins’ argument. I too believe that local government needs to have more powers, take a greater role in the local community and generally be more independent from central Government.

However, I think Mr Jenkins may have gone too far.

Local Government has, in my mind, actually performed well in this crisis. Ask around local authorities and you will hear plenty of stories of Borough commanders liaising with the leader (or locally elected mayor) of their council. Both groups recognise that we can’t address these problems in isolation and been quick to work together.

This has enabled the councils to ensure that the police have the support they need and that the local authority is able to act where needed.

I know that my local authority has been in close contact with the local borough commander, I believe we even lent them some transport. Other council leaders have recognised the importance of close contact and joined up working. I know of at least one assistant leader who spent his whole day at the local police HQ and Councillor Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth council, was one of the first leaders to actually come back from his holiday to co-ordinate activities (well before Boris, Dave etc).

I don’t listen to local radio up and down the country, it would be impossible, but I do know that in a lot of local areas police and local politicians handled the communications activity together ensuring that there was one consistent message being passed to the local populace.

And then when the clean-up came local government was all over it, in part because they had been working so closely with the police.

This might not have been the leadership that Mr Jenkins wants but it was effective and delivered results.

I think it is possible that Mr Jenkins has made two errors.

Firstly, he has taken the fact that the national media has only really covered the actions of the national politicians or the Commissioner of the Met police and assumed that this means that local politicians have not been acting locally or been effective. To me, this has simply not been the case. Secondly, he has taken the failure of Boris to stamp his authority on activities in London as a failure of power in local government in general. We shouldn’t read too much into individual actions. Whatever people think about Ken Livingstone, you know he would have been front and centre running this had he been mayor.

In my mind local government has actually shown itself to be in touch with local needs in a way that few expected. The relationship with police forces in local areas has been developed in recent years and that is now paying off.

This does not mean the system is perfect.

Simon Jenkins is right that decisions about over-arching policing levels were left totally up to the Met and national politicians. Equally, whilst local government was, in many cases, able to act locally to really make a difference there weren’t really any cases where you could say that people rallied to the call of local leaders.

Local government has developed a sense of confidence over the years but this has not been matched by a development in local democracy, legitimacy or general locally based civic-ness. So when a crisis comes it almost doesn’t matter how well Local Government works; the public will still demand, and expect, a response from the politicians who they view as being able to pull the levers of power.

So whilst I disagree with Simon Jenkins thesis I do agree with his solution. Giving more power and authority to local leaders would be a good start. However, I fear that the lack of local democracy cannot simply be solved by passing more power to local authorities or empowering local leaders. We have a long culture of centralised, nationally focused Government and overcoming it will be a long term job.

I think our local government leaders proved this week that they are, in some cases, ready to embrace the challenge.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

Explore posts in the same categories: Big P Politics, The future of Local Govt

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3 Comments on “Whither Local Government?”

  1. Will Says:

    A nicely balanced piece. I think just because our local leaders (managerial not just political) chose to get on with it rather than get on the tv. The point about the working relationship between local government and police having improved is well timed considering the move towards directly elected police commissioners. Will local political leaders work as effectively with a police force governed by one political leader rather than by a mixture of politicians and indpendents through the police authority.

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