Super-sizing the cities
4 March, 2005

Gerry Stoker, NLGN Trustee & University of Manchester
Public Finance

The basic problem with the local government system in England is that not enough of us really care about what it does. The truth for most voters, most of the time, is that there is not much to care about. In absence of anything else we talk up the idea of community leadership as the future of local governance. But we have ducked the changes necessary to really deliver that community leadership role.

Given the failure of the regional devolution agenda, the challenge before us is now greater than ever. If local government is going to be the answer to the devolution question in England, then to mangle a well know line from Star Trek we need people to exclaim: “It’s local government Jim, but not as we know it”.

A different form of local government should be about three aims. Firstly, to create the conditions for sustainable communities The Egan Report after extensive research and focus group testing suggested the following definition: Sustainable communities meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, their children and other users, contribute to a high quality of life and provide opportunity and choice. They achieve this in ways that make effective use of natural resources, enhance the environment, promote social cohesion and inclusion and strengthen economic prosperity.

A second aim is to sustain and facilitate the growth of more self-organising capacity in communities. Another desired outcome from community leadership is that communities should feel more confident about governing themselves.

The third aim is to improve responsiveness and productivity in the delivery of locally-provided services. Gershon has identified various ways of achieving efficiencies through better procurement, better back office management of support services to front line staff, the use of IT to lower transactions costs within government and also between government and citizen, streamlined regulation and better evidence to drive policy choices. The fundamental assumption is that the rationale for government at all levels is to be a client – choosing the level and quality of service; as well as a market-maker – ensuring that a market place of providers exists and that competition is fair and quality assured. Local authorities may in addition be direct providers (Indeed, this may be necessary to ensure the effective dynamic of the market). Achieving greater efficiency means building on our current mixed economy of provision, with an enhanced role for private companies and voluntary organisations.

Our current system is not geared to delivering these three aims on a consistent basis. The institutions of local government lack the scale and scope to tackle the issues that could deliver sustainable communities, community empowerment or better productivity in our mobile and complex society. We need a governance capacity at a level both higher and lower than the present system delivers. Local government in England is designed for other purposes, in different days. If we are to deliver a radical vision of community governance is needs to be set up differently.

What local government has delivered in England has varied over time; indeed one of its strengths has been its ability to adapt. Six roles are central to its future however, to give concrete expression to community leadership.

The first would be transport and mobility, with local government in a position to affect your ability to move around – its job to ensure effective public and private transport management. Second, to help create the conditions for employability through child care, training programmes and economic regeneration. Third, and relating to safety, would be defend you from crime and protect you from disasters, and help to see that justice was done in your community. Fourth, to be responsible for the management of your environment: its everyday maintenance, physical development and long-term ecological health. Fifth, to give the best start to children and help people maintain a healthy lifestyle, through caring for the community to give its shape to its ambitions, to reconcile interests and promote its concerns. Finally, local government would help maintain the cohesiveness of the community and at the same time support the cultural identity and civic capacity of the many groups and distinct cultures in an area.

These functions provide an indicative rather definitive list – a way of making what is meant by local government as community leaders more tangible to the public. Of course, more detailed investigation and analysis will be needed to clarify the nature of these responsibilities.

Crucial to the argument is that the functions identified are appropriate to the particular character of territorial government in the 21st Century. In the past and still today people ask for local or regional government to be given responsibility for major services like health care, school education and housing provision. Having control of big spending and employment functions is seen as an expression of strong territorial government. My aim is to see local government given a core set of activities that make sense for it to run and oversee as a territorial agency. The focus is on making it strategically central to our governance system and the development of local communities.

The responsibilities outlined would create institutions capable of demanding considerable public attention and interest. The functions based around transport co-ordination, training and employment, environmental management and sustainability, economic regeneration and inclusion address substantial and pressing public concerns. Plainly in all of those areas local government would be acting in context of the actions and objectives of other levels of government. But, for example, the environmental role would stretch from a concern with clean neighbourhoods to tackling the needs for greater sustainability in the operation of towns and cities. Again the crime and justice agenda would be focused not just on low level crime but also restorative justice, community healing and effective police accountability.

To focus on these responsibilities, local government would have to give up some of its current functions, such as the direct running of libraries, leisure centres and housing management. It is not that those services would not be provided or subject to democratic oversight. Rather, territorial government – and in particular local government – is not the right body to exercise those roles.

There are many ways in which these functions could be managed, and indeed are increasingly so. One option is through Public Interest Companies (PICs) operating at either a neighbourhood, city, metropolitan or regional level. Stakeholders with a direct and specific concern could be incorporated into running the PIC, through membership of the controlling board or through an advisory council of users.

The suggested reforms also imply going with the grain of the changing role of local authorities with respect to school education, and social services for children and the elderly. These are specialist services where issues of national priorities, equity support and national-level lesson-learning have gained prominence and considerable official and public backing. Territorial government would have a role in relation to these services – one however of challenge and scrutiny, not direct funding and control.

To deliver the six roles, the powers and capacities of local government will need enhancing and its oversight and influence over other bodies operating in localities increased. A detailed investigation would be required to reveal what would have to be made available to local government. Financial freedoms will be crucial. As will the power to intervene and hold others to account.

For all of this to work, a different system of local government would be essential – one that is both more strategic and more local. The functions outlined require a capacity to work at a level that will break through the boundaries of the existing system. In the short run additional joint bodies could be established at a strategic level, bringing together groups of existing councils and new institutions tried out at the neighbourhood level. In the long run a full-scale reorganisation could be attempted. Perhaps in the form of ‘city region’ local government, built around ‘super-sizing’ cities and counties? Alongside genuine community-level neighbourhood governance, such a system could provide a distinctive and attractive devolution settlement for England (the New Local Government Network has set up a commission to explore these very issues). Existing institutions of local government may in different parts of the country either go or stay depending on the particular geography of the area.

The local government system that emerges will have to be very different in its core purposes, control over resources and style of politics to become a plausible offer to be put to a public that remains appropriately sceptical. It will be a local government that works in co-operation and alongside other bodies, some of which may be subject to control though direct election as well.

Empowerment is not just a matter of individual opportunities to run services or make choices. Both are important, but it is also about creating systems of representative devolved government in reach of local people that they can relate to, influence and rely on to deliver the collective decisions central to the quality of their lives. The greatest empowerment of all is a system of governance that makes life easier, more liveable and more full of potential. Running things yourself and making choices can be fulfilling. Having things run for you in a way that enables you to live your life can be even more rewarding. A local government able to exercise oversight and influence over the core ingredients of the local environment would be an empowering institution, and one that people would care about.

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester and a Trustee of the New Local Government Network His pamphlet What is local government for? is published by NLGN and available, price £11.25 (inc p&p) from