Responsibility without power: some futures for local government

Martin Stott

There was a really good April Fool this year from green think tank the Green Alliance announcing the abolition of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Apart from the clue in the date of the blog, it didn’t take long to realise that it was a jape because of the wonderful comment about how Whitehall didn’t need to guide local government any more as they ‘can’t any longer tell council how to raise or spend money.’ Pull the other one! It’s just as well though that the Green Alliance pranksters didn’t take the opposite tack and instead announce the abolition of local government itself. Plenty of people would have been taken in by that and admittedly probably briefly, panic would have ensued.

This little diversion did bring to mind the recent Capita report ‘Planning into uncertainty; four futures for local government’. It is well worth reflecting on these scenarios as the local elections for county and unitary authorities come round, as none of them make pretty reading, either for prospective new members or particularly, for their political parties. The report author Jonathan Flowers sets out four futures which he terms ‘national delivery’, ‘delivery for place’, ‘local government bypass’ and ‘smaller spider, bigger web’.

stott table apr 13

Source: Capita

The view in the report is one looking back from 2022 and it takes a look at two of the sources of uncertainty that will have a fundamental impact on local government:
• Will the mood of localism continue or will we see a centralising retrenchment?
• Will local government be given more powers and a wider remit or will it be gradually chipped away?
It assumes that there is an ‘austerity decade’ which sees local government cut its costs dramatically over the first five years and ‘how its share of the public purse declined even more in the five years after that’.

From a local government practitioners point of view ‘smaller spider, bigger web’ sounds the most promising and Flowers reports that it is what ‘much of the thinking in local government generally seems to be about’. It is much the most optimistic scenario where as the name suggests, there is a more ‘localised and growing remit for local government’ where local authorities are very much at the centre of managing complexity. With councils needing to be even more in touch with their local communities at ground level in order to maintain a local ecosystem of healthy organisations that are happy and able to work together, elected members assume a kind of community organiser-cum-networker role for their locality. As the report comments it would be a ‘very fulfilling but quite demanding’ role, but with a very limited role for the political parties. Councillors as local champions, not party champions, all the more so if they had their own distributed budget allocations.

The other scenarios have a much more marginal role for councillors. ‘Delivery for place – a centralised and growing role for local government’ sounds promising but the reality of this is ‘local government becomes the head office of a local public service conglomerate’ or to my mind, local administration, not local government. The scenario rather generously assumes the role of members will be ‘an ambiguous one’. Actually it will be a highly technocratic environment. The report finally comes clean admitting ‘As the effective power of members diminishes, the power of the senior officer team and especially the chief executive will grow significantly.’ This scenario builds upon a lot of what the last government had in mind. ‘Local government bypass – a localised declining role for local government’ is described as ‘not a pleasant world for local government’. It is about managing decline. If it is done well and local authorities successfully compete for business against other entities (private sector, third sector, quangos) members will become a bit like non-executive directors. Not a bad place for some, but it won’t require many members and not much store will be set by political skills.

Finally what I suspect many in local government would see as the doomsday scenario, ‘national commissioning’ – a centralised, declining role for local government’. Here, local government lacks the capacity and resources to engage and all kinds of current functions are removed from it, from highways maintenance (to the Highways Agency) to a new national agency for environmental health and trading standards to promote growth by giving a national level playing field for business. As the departure of schools from local authority control demonstrates, this hardly constitutes blue-sky thinking. In this scenario some authorities successfully win local delivery contracts from these national organisations, but quite a few others have virtually disappeared ‘providing democratic services for a group of members who have less and less influence on their area.’ It’s hard to think of a sadder ending.

The report rightly says that all these scenarios are extreme cases and that in practice bits of all four are likely to come to pass. Fair comment, but not a very enticing prospect for prospective members. I’d like to add one further dollop of gloom to the mix. My scenario five. This is ‘local government as deliverer of difficult decisions’. There are plenty of things Whitehall would like to get as far away from Ministerial desks and responsibility as possible, and local government remains a convienient dumping ground for many of them. The most obvious is the whole package of welfare reforms. Under the guise of ‘localisation’, the devolution of difficult decisions about whether to charge benefits recipients council tax or cut services, how to manage budgets when the benefits budget has been devolved minus 10% but with protection for large groups such as pensioners, are already under way. The care of elderly people is another expensive hot potato and as climate change apparently takes hold more rapidly than anticipated, responsibility for expensive flood control and other adaptation measures looks ripe for localisation too. Welcome newly elected members, responsibility without power awaits you.

stott

Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.

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