Gerry Stoker, NLGN Trustee and University of Manchester
When it comes to the future of local government, two sets of issues arise. Those that need addressing immediately and those that, dealt with over time, could bring about a truly radical reform of our public services and governance mechanisms.
The short term issues flow from government policy that been consistently followed over the past few years. New Labour’s approach has been to seek the modernisation of the leadership and orientation of councils, to improve their efficiency of service delivery and encourage greater public engagement in local decision-making.
Progress against all three objectives can be claimed. But, in each case, there is a need to seriously rethink the possibilities and options for further reform. Plenty of evidence exists in this area, from government-sponsored academic surveys to the raft of think tank pamphlets produced by NLGN and others.
Modernisation of leadership has, through the creation of new executives, given way to more focused and professional local politicians. Meanwhile, the overview and scrutiny function of backbenchers is finally beginning to show some signs of advance in councils. More needs to be done however to ensure it is part of the culture of all local authorities.
The mayoral model has established itself in difficult circumstances and, at least in terms of name recognition and engagement of the public, continues to reveal some gains. Still, one core issue to be addresses is whether and how the model can be extended? The ODPM’s 10 year vision paper restates that community leadership is the core purpose of local government, while expressing uncertainty about the nature and legitimacy of this role. Elected mayors might yet be considered the best way of delivering on this vision.
On service delivery, the general consensus seems to be of the need for a streamlined performance framework to reduce the burden on councils. But the Gershon agenda is pushing hard on local government to change the organisation of backroom services, procurement practices and the ways in which it uses IT.
As for how councils engage their communities in deeper and more meaningful ways, evidence again exists of positive shifts with respect to both electoral and non-electoral forms of participation. Whether new technologies – techno-localism, if you will – and new forms of neighbourhood participation could drive matters on should be a matter for new policy development and practice.
The core aim of the past eight years has been to make councils better at what they do. Yet the most radical aspect of the debate going forward must involve taking a step back to ask: ‘What do we want local government to do?’. Only then, should we attempt to answer questions about its structures, functions and finance.
Start pull quote: The closing down of the option for a radical devolution to regional assemblies increases the urgency of a debate about what platform local government could provide for a further commitment to devolution and decentralisation. End pull quote. A bold vision of local government is required. This would involve responsibility at strategic level for the sustainable advancement of their communities, the delivery of civil renewal and citizen empowerment, and a determination to improve quality of services and consumer-responsiveness.
Can we outline a set of functions for local government that the public will really care about and regard as central to their lives? Framed in this way issues about the structure of local government also come into focus. What people are most concerned with is transport and mobility, employment, crime and safety, the local environment and giving themselves, their families and neighbours the best chance for a good and healthy life. Our current system of local governance is both too small and too large a scale to meet these objectives.
We therefore need to consider ways of establishing ‘city-regional’ level co-ordination, alongside neighbourhood governance. The latter is firmly on the political agenda; the former less so, but the subject of NLGN’s recently established City Regions Commission. Together, and in tandem, they can offer a radical future for local governance. And in this context, issues of local government finance could shift away from a rather abstract discussion over the balance of powers to a more fundamental question of whether councils have the financial tools to deliver against their set objectives.
Ultimately, if local government is to be the torch bearer for devolution in England then limited and ad hoc reforms will not do. Enhanced neighbourhood government, a few more mayors and a more subtle form of performance management – the options most likely to surface from the current strategic review – are all worthwhile innovations. A true settlement however, needs a much grander design.
‘What is local government for? is published by NLGN and available, price £11.25 (inc p&p) from firstname.lastname@example.org