The core role of local government
7 February, 2013

Simon Parker, Director, NLGN

Defining a local authority as a collection of services is a bit like describing an elephant as an assemblage of trunks, tusks and ears.

It tells you something important, but completely fails to capture the essence of either council or pachyderm.

The core of local government’s role is governing a place, and meeting the needs of its residents. We forget that at our peril. Yet councils are increasingly being forced to make difficult choices between services and governing.

Leaders such as Newcastle City Council’s Nick Forbes have passionately argued that we should care more about people than we do about objects. Tower Hamlets LBC’s mayor Lutfur Rahman has made a similar argument as he moves towards selling his borough’s Henry Moore sculpture.

The data shows that culture spending in general has taken a hit as the cuts bite.

While recognising their case, I worry if putting people before objects might be a false dichotomy. Art is one of the things which defines places.

It tells us about our history and our culture, providing meaning and enchantment to our towns and cities. The London County Council recognised this when it originally bought the Henry Moore in the 1950s, to bring life to the starkly utopian East End.

Local government has a powerful tradition of combining social purpose with cultural vision. Our sector’s institutions were built on an attitude which angrily demanded more from central government, but refused to let Westminster set the pace of change.

There is plenty of this spirit still visible today. You see it in the physical fabric of Manchester city centre, Birmingham’s new library, and the impact of the Angel of the North as your train passes into the North East.

Of course we should put people before objects.

But we should also recognise that sometimes, objects help people thrive. Resolving that conundrum is part of what it means to govern.