Local government could never be described as fashionable, yet today there is more talk than ever about the importance of ‘the local’. However, this has converted into less, rather than more, freedom to act locally. Whitehall’s desire to control is strong, as the current freeze on council tax rises demonstrates. Local government hasn’t suffered as much at the hands of Whitehall as the NHS, where the current reorganisation follows countless previous ones – none of which have any clear rationale other than to undo the actions of a previous Minister and ‘prove’ that the new Minister is in charge.
The reason that local government has remained untouched by similar reorganisation is because it has one priceless asset that the NHS has never had. An independent democratic mandate.
But that’s the rub. Nothing drives Westminster politicians wilder than others challenging their supposedly democratic right to rule. But local government did and still does. Hence it’s abiding unpopularity in Whitehall and Westminster. The excuses are many and varied – ‘inefficiency’ (when was democracy ever efficient?), ‘cost’ (let us try and recall local government equivalents of Whitehall’s IT and defence procurement fiascos, amongst others), ‘postcode lotteries’ (isn’t that a subjective term for local decision-making?), ‘poor quality of elected members (remind me which political parties put up these candidates?).
In the end though, the reality was summed up for me by a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, himself ex-local government, who when I asked him once over dinner how many local authorities he thought there should be in England, replied firmly “one”.
The government’s plan for fragmentation, competing foci of accountability and localism without democracy (‘localism lite’) has continued apace. Examples of this include:
- Police Commissioners. Elections in November 2012 will confer a certain cloak of democratic legitimacy but with a few exceptions, their jurisdictions will have little connection to existing democratic jurisdictions.
- The NHS. It’s hard, even now, to know what the NHS reforms will really mean in practice, with local authorities having been ‘given’ responsibility for public health – as if environmental health, trading standards or waste management had nothing to do with the subject already. And will GP Commissioners engage effectively with local authorities about the health of their populations when their accountability remains to Whitehall?
- Schools. Not long ago, local authorities were deliverers of education from 4-18, however this is now disappearing with the introduction of academies, foundation schools, free schools and the like. The mantra is ‘freeing schools from local authority control’, but this means that the schools will have no direct democratic link with their localities.
- The planning system. The right of individual property owners to develop their land was nationalised under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The process of granting or refusing ‘planning permission’ was then delegated to local authorities. Brick by brick, the Localism Act, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successors have removed the foundations of democratic local determination.
- Elected Mayors. The argument for mayors is simple. A single point of accountability for things that go wrong – or right – in a locality. The problem is that giving a single person a lot of power can be a recipe for corruption, and doesn’t allow for the nuances, ambiguities and consensus-building that is so important in local democracy.
Despite all this, by and large, local government has risen to the challenges of the last two decades. Gone are the command and control attitudes – the diverse ecology of local public service provision has made a new way of working essential and local government has found itself sharing responsibility rather than working alone.
There remains a distinct division of opinion in local government between the ‘local authority as service provider’ view and the ‘local authority as community leader and local voice’ perspective. The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, but the rise of the customer has led to a view in some quarters that service provision is all. High quality value for money public services are a very important part of what local government offers. But if that was all it offered, why both with the democracy bit?
There are plenty of companies delivering high quality public services efficiently, but there is a gap in the market for local leadership, the championing of ‘place’, the focus for the expression of local democratic legitimacy. Sadly the trend seems to be in the wrong direction as, rather than bolstering local government, its powers and responsibilities are being stripped.
Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government. He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.