Sticky problems and bigger solutions
20 May, 2005

Warren Hatter, Head of Research, NLGN
New Start

Late May sees the New Local Government Network’s third annual liveability conference. Supported by New Start, the ODPM, Defra and CABE, the focus of this year’s conference is on the practical steps that need to be taken towards greener and safer local environments.

On occasions, myself and others at NLGN are asked why a think tank committed to the modernisation agenda for local government is so keen to be involved in progress on what can seem rather bread and butter delivery issues. To start with, modernisation is always relevant when service delivery is discussed. More than this however, there are deeper issues about decentralisation.

A few years back, when the liveability agenda emerged, there was a clear top down rationale. This stemmed from central government’s perception that improvements in big ticket services such as education and health are slow to emerge and far from universally visible. The street environment, public spaces and general cleanliness however, are immediate and tangible, with a pretty strong feelgood factor attached to them. Both central and local government benefit from this if they are seen to be doing a good job.

The rationale now, and the reason for NLGN’s commitment, is that liveability ties in with the development at ground level of the New Localism that we have long championed. There are two essential reasons for this. First, as with other types of service, there is no blueprint that can be applied to all local areas; so the better that local authorities are at delivering on this agenda, the less sense a centralised command and control approach makes. Second, community leadership can be a factor in addressing ‘clean and green’ issues. In the long run, it is local authorities having the credibility to lead their communities that will embed New Localism in our governance practice and keep the centralists at bay.

A fairly high profile recent example of this is Westminster City Council, working in partnership with a number of UK cities and using its credibility as the elected authority in Westminster. The Council has put public pressure on Wrigley, the producer of 90% of chewing gum sold in the UK, to play an active role in persuading customers to contribute to what Alan Bradley, Cabinet member for the Street Environment, has called “the enormous cleanup bill”. In Westminster’s position, some might prefer a more behind the scenes approach with manufacturers, but the Council seems to feel this has not worked in the past. It is to their credit that they are prepared to use some of the capital they have as a well-run local authority in taking a high profile leadership role. Whatever the outcome, this highlights why liveability isn’t ‘top down’ any more.

On the same issue, Liverpool City Council has been pushing for a national tax of 1p per packet of gum to fund local authorities’ road cleaning bill. This might seem like a centralist solution to a local problem, but it is surely inevitable given the current balance of local government funding. Liverpool’s proposal would carry less weight in a New Localist future where council’s have greater control over local revenue. That’s another story, albeit one that reminds us of how far we have to go before we can say we have turned back the tide of centralisation.

At the NLGN liveability conference, the emphasis will be on the practical ways in which councils are addressing the liveability agenda. We will hear from Slough, which has brought together refuse collection, street cleansing, grounds and highways maintenance, into an integrated “streetscene” contract. We will also hear from Tameside, which is taking an integrated approach to dealing with fly-tipping through linking their Fly-Tipping Enforcement Unit with other council departments. And from Great Yarmouth, whose Environmental Rangers and use of CCTV are making a real difference. In Maidstone meanwhile, a strategy is being put into place to ensure all citizens have an outdoor play area within a 15 minute walk from home.

Dealing with more complex social issues that impact on neighbourhoods is also on the agenda. A multi-agency approach in Leeds is paying off and the conference will hear more about this, as well as Liverpool’s proposed approach to managing issues around prostitution.

When it comes to central/local relations in the UK, it is never wise to predict too far ahead. Nevertheless, the next few years should see the localist tide coming in further. Local councils can help secure this by making a commitment to clean, green and safe neighbourhoods a pivotal element of their community leadership role.

NLGN’s annual liveability conference, Cleaner Neighbourhoods: Practical Step to Greener and Safer Local Environments will take place in London on Thursday 26 May. Full booking details are available at