Welcome to the Neighbourhood? Participation and Inclusion at a Local Level

Katherine Tonkiss

Earlier this month, a group from the Birmingham Social Inclusion Process (People Key Line of Inquiry) held a one day workshop with representatives from across the voluntary and community sectors in the city, to explore the notion of ‘welcome’.  As part of its Social Inclusion Inquiry (Giving Hope, Changing Lives), the partnership is considering options for making local communities more welcoming to new entrants (anyone moving into a neighbourhood), in a drive to improve levels of social inclusion.  I was invited to facilitate a session on the meaning of welcome, and participants were asked to brainstorm as many factors that they could think of that characterised, for them, a good welcome.

The results showed a three-pronged definition of a good welcome:

  1. Basic Needs: unsurprisingly, the image of a smiling face and a warm greeting was invoked by the majority of participants – as well as a warm, safe and welcoming environment.
  2. Inclusion, Help and Support: Knowing about the local neighbourhood, having access to facilities, sharing problems and communicating with neighbours was also viewed as a source of support that could contribute to feeling welcome.
  3. Interest, Recognition and Participation: Recognition of the individual and the provision of opportunities to participate and contribute were linked to feelings of being wanted and useful, which was also seen as key being welcome and included.

The particularly interesting aspect of the findings from this session is the division between inclusion as support, and inclusion as participation.  The two are related, in that the need for help and support for new entrants is likely to be more immediate – and in obtaining that help and support new entrants find themselves in a position to participate more fully in their community.  Yet the analysis does highlight that viewing new entrants such as international migrants as passive receivers of help and support as they adjust to their new surroundings is clearly problematic.  In effect, participation is central to inclusion because it involves taking part in a group activity, and helping to shape the local community.

One of the reasons that the ‘passive’ viewpoint is problematic is in how it conceives of integration.  The definition of integration here is one-sided, in that it is something that the newcomer does in order to be included into their new community.  Integration as a two-way process, with the community itself adjusting to reflect its new entrants as much as its existing demographic, is more conducive to the inclusion of new entrants.  Enabling the participation of new migrants, as I have demonstrated previously, means that local neighbourhoods can be shaped by those new voices.

However, the notion of integration as a two-way process is quite absent from national level politics, and this has a real impact at the local community level.  As I have argued elsewhere, the rhetoric of the Government on immigration and community cohesion[i] has reflected a traditionally conceived British culture into which migrants are expected to assimilate.  Further, Government discourse on human rights also reflects an inherent emphasis on a fixed notion of British identity and culture, where this discourse is utilised to reinforce traditional British citizenship and identity.  At a community level, this impacts on the inclusion of new entrants who often fall outside of the ascribed definition of the collective ‘we’ and are left relatively excluded from opportunities to participate and shape their local surroundings.

Being ‘welcoming’ might seem, on the surface, quite a straightforward idea.  Yet we are not talking about welcoming a guest – rather, the issue at stake is how to welcome a potential co-citizen, and the challenges here are considerably more complex.  Catherine Durose’s recent blog defined citizenship as practice, and the idea of participation as inclusion is certainly consistent with such a viewpoint.  Yet facilitating this form of participation is reliant on a wider transformation in how we conceive of inclusion and integration more broadly.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published next year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.

[i] Tonkiss, K. (forthcoming 2013) Post-National Citizenship without Post-National Identity?  A Case Study of UK Immigration Policy and Intra-EU Migration.  In press, Journal of Global Ethics.

Bring Me the Head of George Ferguson: Is Bristol the Last Stand for Elected Mayors?

Thom Oliver

The ultimate Zombie Idea of Local Government lives on in the West of England but will budgetary and party political challenges spell an end for the directly elected mayoral model?

Proposals for an elected mayor model first emerged in a Department of the Environment consultation paper in 1991 as part of another comprehensive review of local government. It was part of that same review that led to the replacement of the ‘community charge’ with the council tax and the creation of the Local Government Commission.  Whilst given little attention at the time ‘The Internal Management of Local Authorities in England’ consultation gave us the first mentions of cabinets in local government, council managers and directly-elected mayors. Since then the idea of directly elected mayors has been dealt near fatal blows but still emerges as one of the battery of central government medications to cure the ills of local government.

I get knocked down but I get up again

The policy ideal of elected mayors has been advocated by a range of politicians of different hues, each of whom have championed the idea only to find themselves confronted with new setbacks. First up, of all the responses to the 1991 consultation from county councils, district councils, London and metropolitan boroughs not one was in favour of elected mayors. Labour under Blair grabbed hold of the idea and in government legislated for elected mayors through the Local Government Act 2000. However when offered the option of a move away from committee based structures, few opted for a directly elected mayor and cabinet model with the majority choosing the leader and cabinet model. Whilst the Act succeeded in moving councils away from the committee system, very few referendums were held to move to elected mayors. As the tide ebbed back to committees, plans for directly elected mayors were seemingly left high and dry.

That was until the Localism Act 2011 and the mandated referendums of May 2012 when directly elected mayors became the solution again. The voters of Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford all kicked the idea to the long grass. However the policy ideal lives on, and eyes are on Bristol and its newly elected independent mayor. But what are the prospects for success for both the man and the idea, and just how has this idea survived such a tumultuous ride in the face of significant and regular challenges to its worthiness and legitimacy?

The challenge for the newly elected mayor of Bristol


George Ferguson, architect, entrepreneur and purveyor of red trousers, is the man tasked with carrying forward the brow beaten ideal of directly elected mayors and championing a cause in the face of numerous challenges.

Whilst there are hopes of an independents revolution as argued by Martin Stott following George’s cannibalism of votes from the Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour, party politics seemingly lives on and has surfaced abruptly as he tries to form his Rainbow cabinet. Surprising some by offering a composition based on vote proportions in the mayoral vote all parties were offered a place at the table (3 for Labour whose candidate Marvin Rees had come in a solid second place, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Conservative and 1 Green). George invoked a game of party political unpluralist ping pong. The Greens, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats moved to embrace the ‘new mood’ but Labours decisions were more protracted. First the local party voted against their councillors sitting on the cabinet, next up the council group voted by a small margin that they would join George only to be denied later through being overruled by Labours National Executive Committee. A flurry of press releases, resignations and regretful declines of cabinet offers later, George has been left with a cabinet of three and three empty seats, the vacant cabinet posts being taken on by Ferguson himself.

At first look it would seem a politically expedient option for Labour to not sit at George’s table as he makes a prospective £36million worth of cuts. However some have stressed they have misread the mood of the city. The pre-Ferguson Lib Dem administration through star chambers and cross party working had steered through over £55million worth of cuts impressively without drawing protests onto the streets of the city. Labour has seemingly chosen to sit back in ‘constructive opposition’ remaining untainted by Ferguson’s budget and potentially riding back in as white knights to join George once the budget has been passed.

It remains to be seen whether Ferguson will ask other parties to fill the Labour gaps or whether he will issue a now or never ultimatum for them to join now or remain out of the cabinet for the considerable future.

Killing the zombie?

The challenge for George as an Independent in the party political world is hard but if he fails would that be the end of the line for the idea of elected mayors? All eyes will be on Bristol. The yes to mayor vote in Bristol and the election of George Ferguson showed there was an appetite for something different, if not for elected mayors.

The idea of directly elected mayors has survived this long as the model hasn’t proved itself but it hasn’t been disproved. A recent guardian piece posited much hope for George in Bristol but if George and his rainbow cabinet in Bristol don’t succeed, it may be the final straw in killing the Zombie.

… Or perhaps Michael Heseltine will re-awaken the zombie idea of British Local Government:

I was disappointed that more cities did not choose to opt for a mayor. It confirmed my fear that relatively few would vote and that party loyalties would determine the outcomes. I believe this issue needs to be revisited to give our cities the influence and leadership commonly found in similar economies.


Dr Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.

An Arsène Wenger perspective on West Somerset

Chris Game

In her recent blog on financially distressed councils in general and West Somerset DC in particular, Catherine Staite suggested that we should be talking more about “streamlining the machinery of local government … merging smaller councils”, and in effect institutionalising some of the multiplying numbers of apparently cost-saving shared service and shared staffing arrangements

Hardly had Catherine’s blog hit the page, however, than things had moved on – certainly for hapless West Somerset. Despite its being a key recommended solution of both the LGA and the former Local Government Minister, Bob Neill, it seems West Somerset may not after all be one of the smaller councils destined for oblivion by merger. Instead, Neill’s successor, Brandon Lewis, has come up with a cunning plan to – as it’s put in the report going to the full council this Wednesday – “retain the ‘sovereignty’ of the Council as the local democratic accountable body in West Somerset” (p.34).

It’s good that ‘sovereignty’ word is encased securely in the kind of quotation marks used for unfamiliar or ironic usage – because it’s not one generally considered applicable to any UK local authority, and there certainly doesn’t seem a whole lot of it in the plan for West Somerset. Rather, it takes on almost the exact opposite of its usual meaning: namely, following to the letter the Minister’s lengthy list of demands and conditions, in exchange for which it has the unique ‘opportunity’ (my quotes, this time) to create a new model of operation by becoming a ‘Commissioning Authority’.

No, sorry, a solely Commissioning Authority, for in this case the Council would commission other service providers, mainly neighbouring councils, to provide all the services it decides West Somerset residents require, retaining only a skeleton staff to manage the arrangements and monitor performance. Yes – the minimalist council, once merely a gleam in the mind’s eye of Thatcherite Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, has finally arrived. Remember the punchline to his vision of a council meeting just once a year, to hand out contracts for its various services: “I wouldn’t mind paying those councillors attendance allowances”.  How we laughed.  I wonder if West Somerset members will see the joke, as they learn the details of – to use a term that seems not to feature in Wednesday’s council report – their ‘virtual authority’: not physically existing as such, but made to appear to do so by software, or in this instance Ministerial soft-soap.

I want to return, though, to Catherine’s blog and her exhortation to talk about these things, and mergers in particular, before they reach the stage of Ministerial intervention. Here at the uni we’re all for more talk and critical inquiry – can’t get enough of them. So, in the interests of helping things along, I thought I’d perform an Arsène Wenger role and add a bit of perspective to the discussions.

The French-born Wenger, for those unfamiliar with Planet Football, is the longest serving and most successful manager of the English Premier League side, Arsenal. Despite his outstanding record, he is currently getting flak from both the media and club supporters after, by Arsenal’s recent standards, a poor start to the season. Wenger’s understandable response is to call for less emotion and more perspective, claiming that the club is in fact “in fantastic shape”.

No, I’m not about to claim that West Somerset, or indeed any other authority in these stressful times, is in fantastic shape. I do wonder, though, what it says about our system of LOCAL government that it apparently cannot accommodate a principal council of the size and with the potential resources of West Somerset, and when its own representative Association declares it “not viable as a unit of local democracy and governance over the longer term”. Why are we – a modest 80th among the territorially largest countries in the world – so desperately keen to have its largest-scale and least-local local government?

First, a few stats. The currently 28-member West Somerset DC was created in 1974 from a merger of two urban and two rural district councils (95 councillors in all), at least one of which – Minehead, a largely self-contained historic coastal town of just over 10,000 – would undoubtedly still be a principal council in its own right in many European countries.  West Somerset’s population is 35,000, with the oldest average age in the UK and spread across an area of 740 km² (290 mls²), including much of Exmoor, and the Quantock and Brendon hills. The result is a population density or sparsity of 48 people per km², compared to the UK average of nearly 400. Unfortunately, such extremes count for little when arguing grant settlement figures with London-based civil servants inclined to dismiss all such ‘special case’ bids as ‘that’s what they all say’.

Media reports of West Somerset invariably attribute its alleged unviability to its – meaning presumably its 35,000 population – being so ‘small’ or even ‘tiny’.  Which it is – but only by the UK’s extraordinary, Brobdingnagian standards.  Among EU countries, as shown in the table below, it is more than six times the average size of the lower-tier authorities in what are mostly two- or three-tier systems (Wilson and Game 2011, p.275). If, notwithstanding this being a Wengerian perspective, we take out the distorting influence of the Lilliputian-scale French communes, it’s still well over four times the average size. Try putting the figures on a graph, and the UK not only goes off the end of the horizontal axis; it would require a whole second page for itself

Image 1 Wilson and Game, Local Government in the United Kingdom, 2011, p.275(Source: Wilson and Game 2011: 275).

Dexia CEMR Image 2

(Source: Dexia-CEMR, page 6)

Most of these other EU countries’ municipalities, though generally much smaller than English districts, also have a constitutional power of general competence, and, even more relevantly in the present context, access to a number of different local taxes and tax bases – as can be seen in another graph from the same Dexia/CEMR publication (p.15). On average among the EU 27, the proportions of local revenue coming from central government grants/subsidies and from local/shared taxation are roughly equal; the UK ratio is 6 to 1. Across the EU, local taxes account for between 35 and 40% of local government revenue and between a fifth and a quarter of total tax revenues. Corresponding UK figures in 2011 were 12.7% and 6.2%  (Source: CCRE).

Dexia CEMR Image 3(Source: Dexia-CEMR, page 15)

West Somerset is simply an extreme example of UK local government’s general financial weakness and central dependency. It currently has, if I read the figures correctly, the lowest council tax base of any English district, minimal reserves on which to draw, and is facing a reduction in its revenue support grant both more savage and more immediate even than that for which it was already budgeting. Its alleged unviability is not, as the LGA described it, as a unit of local democracy and governance, but purely financial.  It is the victim of a rigidly centralist funding system being screwed down so tightly that the representative body of a sizable local area and population can no longer do the job for which it was elected.

One final point. Catherine Staite referred in her blog to Denmark’s recent municipality merger programme as one that might have lessons for this country: “councils joined together voluntarily with their neighbours until they achieved the best possible combination of size and geography to deliver economies of scale and locally accessible services”. As it happens, other Nordic countries and/or their citizens have resisted the Danish/British ‘bigger must always be better’ thesis – Norway and Sweden almost completely, Finland and Iceland considerably – but that is not my concern here.

The Danish structural reforms, if not the mergers themselves, were strongly centrally driven, incentivised, and extensive. The number of municipalities was cut by nearly two-thirds, from 271 to 98, the number of councillors by 45%, and the average population size increased from under 20,000 to 56,000 (see table above). However, there still remain 7 municipalities with populations of under 15,000 – the ‘special cases’ that our system seems unable, or unwilling, to accommodate.

It was actually suggested a couple of years ago that this should be the Government’s approach to West Somerset’s exceptional and increasingly dire situation: focus on the nature and needs of relatively small councils, rather than insisting on their adoption of a model designed for much larger councils. They could be allowed ‘flexibilities’, like lighter regulation, and not having to produce separate corporate, improvement and service plans. Above all, though, the Government might consider increasing, rather than cutting, their grant funding and allowing a council tax increase in excess of the then 3% cap.

And which hare-brained, ivory tower academic came up with that notion? None, actually – it was Bill Roots, ex-Westminster Chief Executive, and author of one of the first independent reports on West Somerset. A pity no one listened.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Making Ends Meet: What Aren’t We Talking About?

Catherine Staite

Last month West Somerset District Council sent up a distress flare.  They can’t make ends meet and it is only going to get worse.  At the other end of the scale, the Leader of Birmingham City Council has announced £600m of cuts and declared that the changes which are coming will be ‘the end of local government as we know it’. LB Barnet’s ‘graph of doom’ demonstrates how rising social care costs will eat up their resources until there is no capacity to do anything else but social care and emptying the dustbins.

At INLOGOV we’ve been rather optimistic about the potential for some good to come out of the financial crisis.  We’ve been talking about how we need to build capacity, change relationships and challenge expectations – something we’re calling a ‘new model’ for public services. We are working with some very innovative councils who are embedding radical new thinking in the way that they prioritise resources and commission services. I really believe that it will be possible for them not only to survive but to thrive in this difficult climate.

Others will not be so fortunate. They may ‘salami slice’ and inadvertently lose all their innovative, creative people and therefore their capacity to change.  In some cases political and managerial leadership can’t imagine a different sort of world and so can’t act quickly enough to start building better relationships with communities, managing demand and harnessing capacity to help bridge the gap between what people need and what can be provided.  This requires a new style of local government and  very different, outward facing, political skills.

We are talking about many ways of mitigating the impact of reduced resources on the most vulnerable, but the one thing we don’t seem to talking about is streamlining the machinery of local government. Local government re-organisation – that is, merging smaller councils and moving to a world where shared services are the norm – could help to make the best use of limited capacity and save significant amounts of money but it is rarely discussed.  Many districts and some unitaries have successful shared arrangements, with chief executives and senior management teams managing up to three councils, with evident success.  Why don’t we talk about taking that further? Surely it isn’t because Mr P doesn’t like the idea.  That would recommend it to many. Perhaps it seems too difficult and painful a topic to discuss.  But if we don’t, then opportunities will be lost to make the changes in a positive way and not in a crisis, when distress flares have already gone up.

In Denmark, local government has re-organised itself successfully in recent years. Councils joined together voluntarily with their neighbours until they achieved the best possible combination of size and geography to deliver economies of scale and locally accessible services.  Perhaps we should think about doing the same thing?  If local government doesn’t take the initiative and provide its own leadership on this, no-one else will.  How can we justify the inefficiencies and unnecessary overheads of two tier areas and tiny unitaries in the current financial climate – when cuts are having a real impact on the most vulnerable?

English local government is demonstrably resilient and resourceful.  Can it also be clever, brave and altruistic?

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.