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.
Let us start with the Big Society first. Under this localist vision the local authority plays a relatively small role. Instead of having a public sector organised around local councils we instead encourage a diversity of providers, co-operatives, voluntary groups, private sector and small providers sharing the public duties. Members of the public can bid to run local services and would be encouraged to do so.
This has many appealing elements within it and the localist vision that underpins it is certainly an admirable one.
However, there is a need to develop the democratic element of these ideas. For this to work there are areas where we will need to develop our approaches to these issues quite considerably. I’m not certain that the Big Society visionaries have managed to establish some means of attaining ‘consent’ from the public for their new marketplace of providers. It is clearly early days but without this legitimacy there is a rightful concern that the new mechanisms will not improve the democratic element of the local service delivery mix. Indeed, foundation trusts and trust schools have similar democratic holes in them which successive Governments have worked hard to try to fill.
In local government we do already have some successful democratic structures in place and this mandate and local consent could, in theory be provided through the local authority as commissioners but I wonder if even this would encourage the increasing atomisation of the political process. The point of a local authority is to manage these competing priorities and plot a vision for the local area. Would a role complementing the Big Society vision enable them to do so? It is definitely worth exploring this further.
The second option is put forward by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee under the rather grand title: ‘A new Magna Carta for Local Government’ and we have quite some sympathy for it here at WLLG. In this vision local government takes real powers from the centre, is able to raise the funds it spends locally itself and:
They shall enjoy independence in both powers and finance and be entitled to do all that is required at local level, within the law, to secure and improve the well-being of their citizens and communities. Parliament makes plain that within their spheres of competence, local councils have co-equal not subordinate status to central government and that their rights and duties shall enjoy equal protection in law.
At a stroke we would be devolving a lot of power to local authorities and asking them to be responsible for a wider range of options than they currently have. There would be a real reason for people to vote for them in local elections and theoretically we would get a greater variance of policy in different local areas. This latter point is the one that appeals to us the most. If local government is to be truly local then allowing local people to determine a different course of action in their local area is a really good thing. This already happens in some local authorities but not as much as we would like.
But if we are to impute more power on our local authorities then we probably need to accompany this with taking the role of councillors more seriously. I know this is an unpopular position but we should pay our councillors enough money that they can free up at least two or three days a week to do the work of a councillor. Councils are complex bodies and running them should not be a hobby conducted in meetings between 7pm and 10pm four nights a week. Without that proviso how can we possibly expect people to take their role running local authorities seriously?
The above represent two options for local government. There are other policies that could make a difference; for example community budgeting could have a radical impact on local government’s ability to lead their local community. Likewise, a whole new approach might be dreamed up and become the idea de jour before this post has truly vanished into the archives of the internet.
Local government is at a crossroads. Can it become, once again, an engine of the local population it serves driving social change and providing services tailored specifically to the communities it serves or will the most centralised state in Europe leave local government as just another arm of service implementation?
One thing is for certain. The current drive for austerity, allied to the coalition’s supposed commitment to localism is pushing this question up the agenda. We shall watch with interest.
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