In the debate raging on the future of local government, more or less every aspect of what a council does is under scrutiny. But one topic seems to be off limits: the role of local politics. This is peculiar, because England’s local democracy is in trouble thanks to decades of declining turnouts and an increasingly generalised distrust of politics in general. Things must change.
New research from the New Local Government Network, supported by Grant Thornton, set out to understand how the council chamber might change over the rest of the decade. We worked with a politically and geographically diverse group of 15 members drawn from the different tiers of local government to develop four scenarios for the future of local democracy in 2020.
By far the most optimistic of these was a world in which councils embraced a shift from 20th-century ideas of hierarchical power and towards a more modern idea of networked power, in which politicians work with and through citizens.
Our vision of the networked council was one in which the role of the councillor was to work alongside people in their neighbourhoods to commission services from the ground up. Everything from bins to social care would be redesigned to meet the needs of local people.
This style of leadership might best be summed up by reference to Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá, who famously walked the streets showing people red cards for antisocial behaviour and hired mime artists to ridicule bad drivers. Mockus understood that, in the networked world, informing and inspiring people is often more valuable than spending extra money on them.
The other scenarios were more challenging. Some councils might choose to become like remote corporations, delivering efficient services but with a technocratic and passionless political culture. Those who fail to embrace change could end up spending much of the decade navel-gazing as their residents become increasingly angry at the pace of cuts.
In the most extreme scenario, a failure to engage with the process of cuts and an inward-looking culture could result in the collapse of some local political cultures, as residents reject all the incumbent parties and elect independents and protest groups.
Every scenario has surprising drawbacks and benefits. The cuddly networked councils risk becoming very fragmented – with most of the power in the neighbourhoods, the corporate core might struggle to impose an overarching strategy. Gaps between richer and poorer neighbourhoods might be exacerbated.
And even if local political cultures do collapse under the weight of cuts, the participants in our research thought that the resulting culture of debate might be a positive result. Councillors thrive on the vigorous debate and challenge of options and values. Reintroducing conflict and tension into local government would help backbenchers in particular to develop a clearer sense of their role and goals.
The danger that emerges from all the scenarios is that the increasingly professional and technocratic world of local government might risk stifling the sort of innovation Mockus embodied by locking councillors into the role of elected service managers. Councillors serving primarily as assessors and signatories of efficiency-orientated contracts might provide short-term savings to cash-strapped councils, but their long-term leadership roles could be compromised. If we want strong and innovative councils, we must make sure politicians can be politicians.
Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and Guy Clifton is advisory lead at Grant Thornton UK LLP.
photo credit: UK Parliament