Posted tagged ‘Big Society’

Democratic Localism

June 20, 2012

The least worst option…

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.


Ode to local government

February 9, 2012

20120208-222538.jpgI sit on the sofa during a visit to mum,
Through a copy of the local free sheet I thumb.
‘The bloody council, they’re all the same’,
From my mum comes this familiar refrain.
‘All the same, how so?’ comes my question in reply,
There’s so much people don’t know about councils, thinks I.

‘Well,’ mum continues, warming to her topic.
‘None of them seem to work with any logic.
The left doesn’t know that the right exists,
And I’m sure the customer service man I spoke to was pi55ed.
I had such a simple question when I called him last week,
By the time he had finished I felt like a freak
For not knowing which department or service I needed
That’s why I need help! In the end he conceded
The point and found someone I could talk to.
The trouble is they said sorry and passed me on through
To a nice young woman who tried hard to help,
But I could tell she was struggling, only a whelp
So after an hour I simply gave up
And had a hot coffee: I needed a cup.’

Debating Referendums

September 26, 2011

Have I seen this picture somewhere before?

Last week we wrote a piece decrying the Government’s ludicrous idea of giving local residents the power to call referenda but then not make the result of that referendum binding. As mentioned, this is sort of the equivalent of giving people money to go out and buy as many cakes as they want but then not letting them eat any of them.

Flippin ridiculous!

However, the twitter response to our post was not about the idiocy of the Government’s response but actually about referenda themselves. One of our favourite critics, Paul Evans was particularly exorcised, signing off with one of my favourite debate enders ever:

Direct Democracy is just poison.

It was sort of hard to know what to say to that really; so I bottled out and pledged to spend a bit of my weekend mulling why exactly I was defending referendums and whether the plural or referendum was referendums or referenda. (Paul got me on that one too!)

Before I continue I should urge you to read Paul’s piece on why Direct Democracy is a really bad idea. It’s available here and lays out, in more detail than I’d ever manage, the reasons that referendums are not a good idea.

Rather than refute each of Paul’s points, which would be pretty dull and often not possible due to the quality of some of his arguments, I decided to try and develop a coherent vision of when and why referendums might be a good thing. It was a lot more tricky than I originally thought.

We should not get caught up on the principle of the issue but it is worth saying that it is profoundly democratic to let people have an un-weighted one person one vote on an issue that directly affects them.

As Paul points out the problem here is that the way we set up referendums in this country. In general we usually set them up for a limited number of questions and usually one where all nuance is stripped out of the debate. The referendum regarding the voting system is a recent and prime example.

However, just because we mis-used a referendum to decide our electoral system does not mean the whole system is bad; or does it?


Cleaning up, Local Government and the Big Society

August 10, 2011

The wonderful side of London

As regular readers of this blog will know we often pre-write our posts and schedule them in to appear, as if by magic, as we commute into our respective offices. This has the advantage of them being available when people arrive at work and allows us to have evening’s doing things other than blogging.

The downside of this is that sometimes events overtake us and what we have prepared for the day is not really appropriate. Yesterday was one such day.

That being said, the fact that we didn’t have time to prepare anything riot specific on Monday night may have been a blessing in disguise. To be brutally honest I don’t think any of us would have had anything to say that would have added to a torrent of comment that was being produced by people far more qualified, and talented, than us. Between us we absorbed a lot yesterday but we all agreed that this piece by Toby Blume was worth a read and maybe slightly below the radar of some of the pieces in major newspapers etc that you may have already seen.

It was reported on the Sky News ticker at about 1pm on Tuesday afternoon that one of David Cameron’s top advisors (unnamed) had prepared a memo suggesting that the riots might be the best time to re-launch the Big Society.

It’s obviously strange timing but the unnamed advisor may have been about right. As London residents woke up to the carnage that had affected their local neighbourhoods small groups of concerned residents gathered together, got out their brooms and set off to clean up their neighbourhoods.

Nothing could be more uplifting than local people standing up to the rioters and basically saying that they will not be dominated by the violence and the chaos that follows. In many ways this was the Big Society in action. I for one thought it was an amazing statement.


Talking about talking

March 15, 2011


Be careful or the public might tell you what they actually want

Here at We Love Local Government we love a good guest post, and here indeed is a guest post worth loving.  If you’ve got something to do with local government you’d like to write about from any angle (even if you think we’d disagree with you) then e-mail it to us at  Until you do though, read this and enjoy.

Reading the recent WLLG post on the way in which councils talk to local people brought back some unpleasant memories for me. I used to be a scrutiny officer. Without knowing much (ok, anything) about the art or science of “community engagement” I and my colleagues, with backbench Members, periodically organised public meetings to inform scrutiny committees’ views on various topics of local interest.
One particularly good one was on the subject of a high-profile local community event. The council and a number of other “local partners” – including the police – wanted to make some significant changes to the way it was run. Predictably, local people – including the organisers of the event – didn’t. Predictably, there was a massive bunfight, generating far more heat than light. We found it difficult – practically impossible, in fact – to get through the agenda, because attendees kept butting in and heckling. It was all the chairman could do to keep order. In the end we got through it but it was a hairy experience and I, as a relatively junior officer, wiped my brow and silently vowed to myself that I’d never do it again. (more…)

Rough Sleeping and the Big Society

March 4, 2011

Caught in the cross fire of local politicians and the Big Society

Westminster Council announced earlier this week that they were going to be:

consulting on plans to ask CLG to approve a bye-law that would outlaw rough sleeping and soup runs in a wide area that includes Westminster Cathedral piazza and the department’s Eland House headquarters.

Now there is a very easy response to this announcement and it goes something like this:


I’m well aware that this is not a simple issue. Apparently, the charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’s support the move, but other groups such as Housing Justice voiced their opposition. If I’m totally honest I really don’t know who’s right and a flippant response of WTF seems a bit cheap.

Anyway, I’m being distracted.

The interesting sub-point of this story is what it says about the Big Society.

In my mind the charities that hand out the soup and other food in Westminster Borough could definitely be described as part of the Big Society. These are charities that often have volunteers working for them. They have identified a need in society and have set out to solve it in their own way.

However, the local politicians who represent the voice of the wider population (or at least I assume they do) are in the process of passing a law that says that the charities, acting in their role as part of the Big Society, are not acting in the best interests of the whole community.

In effect the problem here is one of who is right? The citizens of the ‘Big Society’ soup runs or the elected politicians of Westminster council?


Review of the year

December 22, 2010

The first rule of WLLG; don't tell anyone who writes WLLG

It is coming to the end of the year and the WeLoveLocalGovernment team are planning to take a well earned break between now and the New Year (don’t worry though; we’ve planned some little surprises to keep you entertained throughout the festive period).

And as the end of the year is coming it seemed appropriate to take stock of the year that has been, both for us and for local government. So, in true top of the pops style here follows, in no particular order, our top ten reflections on the year:

1) It would be hard to look past the Comprehensive Spending Review as the single most important moment for local government this year. In our opinion the spending cuts were, and still are, a big opportunity for local government. However, in the short term they have led to rushed decisions and the redundancy of a lot of staff who in any other circumstances local government would be nuts to let go.

2) As a blog site nothing was more exciting than our debut writing on the Guardian website; although our post on radical Chief Executives could be politely described as somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed writing the blog and took a certain pleasure in provoking a little bit of controversy; derived straight from the front line.

3) All of us found ourselves facing redundancy, for some we were facing it for the first time in our lives. I don’t think any of us would describe ourselves as particularly naive and we knew what was coming. However, the way it happened, the effect it had on previously reasonable colleagues and the trouble many Local Authorities had at making the whole thing stick was beyond our worst expectations or fears.


Going out on a cold night

December 7, 2010

A gold plated forum

One of the fun things about having more people read this blog and in turn follow our twitter is that we now have some ‘official’ council followers. Included in this group are @SouthamptonCC, @Copelandbc, @BraintreeDC and @Merton_Council.

In return we have ‘followed’ some of these council’s twitter accounts and even been impressed with their tweets.

An interesting one came through from Merton a few weeks back which I thought deserves some comment. The tweet is rather inelegantly pasted (my bad) below:

Merton Council (@Merton_Council) 26/11/2010 10:51

Want to get involved with local decisions? Why not come along to Merton’s community forums next week.

At first glance it would be hard not to be impressed with this tweet. Merton Council (which is in London) are trying hard to engage local residents in their decision making process; this is something the doyens of the Big Society would celebrate and something that I, as a Local Government Officer, 100% welcome.


Isn’t this just Big Society in action?

September 24, 2010

Here at We Love Local Government Towers (okay, they aren’t actually towers, but they are ivory) we are always on the lookout for interesting stories about anything and everything to do with local government.  If you happen to have one please do e-mail us at, which is exactly what one of our dear readers has done.

It’s a nice way to end a week which has looked in particular at public sector pay, and whilst it’s not exactly about local government it is interesting that the story doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  With people sitting next to each other often not talking it’s no wonder that a zoo and the Council didn’t do the same… (more…)

Decentralisation 2 – The 4 Cs

September 21, 2010

Same picture again: Laziness or thematic???

I promised recently that I would continue writing about decentralisation after my first post served as really a long introduction. If you haven’t read it yet you can do so here although the summary of it would go as follows: the Government are really keen on decentralisation and it poses a real challenge to local authorities.

As much as the Government’s position provides a profound challenge for local authorities I would argue that the challenge is actually shared between policy makers and the local authorities themselves.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Big Society I have decided to offer my thoughts on the four main challenges policy makers need to address over the coming months. Oh, and in the spirit of making it easier to remember (for me) I’ve labelled each of the four challenges with the letter C. (more…)