The future of local government
1 June, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government News

With the General Election now over, the time is ripe to take a step back and gaze into the crystal ball for insights into the future of local government. Except that a great deal of speculative crystal ball-gazing is not actually required. A third term Labour government has been elected, which has taken local government on a journey in recent years and signalled the intended future direction of that journey with some clarity in its Manifesto and elsewhere.

So let’s look at what we know. Although the ODPM is developing a 10 year vision of local government, in some respects many policies in recent years have represented a fairly clear and growing consensus about what the role of local government should be. Local Strategic Partnerships enable councils to join up with other delivery agencies and stakeholders. Local Public Service Agreements enable councils to determine local targets with their partners, and to deliver them together. Local Area Agreements (LAAs), currently the most radical option on offer for councils, offer them and their partners more freedom over local spending and outcomes. And there is an explicit commitment to the further development of the current 20 pilots.

All of these policies amount to a new recognition of the value of democratically accountable local government which takes a holistic view of a locality and its communities. Such councils use this authority to join up other local partners and services and create a vision for the future of the area. Often termed the ‘Community Leadership’ role, it provides a firm foundation for further development of a more autonomous local government in the coming years.

So where has this growing consensus about the role of local government come from – and is it likely to continue? I would argue that underlying these developments is an understanding within local and central government that local government has improved, and has the capacity to keep on improving. The early stages of the journey were rather painful for councils: adopting new political management arrangements, responding to central targets and being subject to the new Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime. However, those painful days are behind councils now, and with two thirds of them now in the ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ categories, there is a strong and independent evidence base demonstrating that local government has got better.

Coupled with the dawning realisation in Whitehall that a centrally driven system of targets and funding will only get us so far in terms of local outcomes, this improvement base is enabling central government to think more radically about the value of councils. Many who have argued hard for a re-balance of power between the centre and localities, including NLGN, see this as the first steps towards making New Localism a reality. Much as concepts based on ‘earned autonomy’ are disliked by local government, the ‘earning’ part of the deal has now largely been done: the question now is how to reap the rewards. In thinking about the future then, the more preferable question is: what additional things does local government need to do in order to really move the New Localism agenda forward?

Firstly, and most obviously, councils need to keep focussed on improvement, both in the services they provide and their own corporate governance. New Localism will always be subject to the natural inclination of the centre to fall back into old habits. If there is any suggestion that councils are losing this focus – the basis on which government’s interest in local autonomy sits –the direction of travel will be undermined.

Secondly, councils need to take advantage of all of the available opportunities. Come up with radical ideas for LAA pilots. Demand more single pot models, which reduce ring-fencing even further. Challenge central government to include more funding into these agreements, and point out inconsistencies in its approach. Embrace freedoms and flexibilities which are already on offer, most obviously the Power of Well-Being. Make existing partnerships work. And be ambitious and innovative.

Thirdly, local government has to be open to more change to governance structures, and to realise the opportunities these can bring. Think about how powerful a city’s arguments for autonomy would be with a Directly Elected Mayor raising the profile and accountability of the local agenda. Think about how local devolution to neighbourhoods and areas can consolidate councils’ claim to be in touch with, responsive to and representative of local people. Think about how new models of regional governance, including ideas such as city regions, might offer new opportunities for councils to work together for the mutual benefit of their areas and citizens.

Finally, local government should argue its case with regard to unanswered questions, such as the future of local taxation. Demonstrating that councils are in touch and working with local partners including business; showing a willingness to be directly accountable; and connecting these questions to issues which central government worries about, such as improving local economic regeneration and competitiveness and local services, may make it hard for central government to say no to re-thinking the balance of funding.

With two cabinet level ministers now responsible for local government, and David Miliband adding new weight, the future for local government is bright and there for the taking.