Can democratic renewal help us ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis? Key recommendations from the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

Elke Loeffler and Nick Pearce

Newham has seen one of the highest rates of COVID 19 mortality in England and Wales. Being one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK (according to 2019 deprivation indices) the crisis has exposed wider social and economic inequalities – in health, housing, access to services and income – particularly for the Black and Minority Ethnic population.

At the same time, Newham has also seen a flowering of community support and creativity in response to the crisis. The local council has pioneered new ways of working with the voluntary and community sector. A new COVID-19 Health Champions network has been launched to empower thousands of Newham residents to remain up to date on the latest advice about COVID-19, and a new digital initiative  ‘Newham Unlocked Community Broadcasts’ showcases the creativity of local artists.

Newham is also one of a relatively small number local councils in the UK which have a directly elected Mayor. In 2018 Rohksana Fiaz took over from Sir Robin Wales, after his 23 years in the post, as London’s first directly-elected female mayor. In her election manifesto Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the direct elected mayoral system before the end of her third year as Mayor (i.e. 2021), although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this timeline.

The Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

In this context the Mayor and the Council of Newham set up an independent Commission in autumn 2019 to examine both the Council’s current directly elected Mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in English local government, and to make recommendations on the best system of governance for Newham’s future, and to explore ways in which local residents can become more engaged and more fully involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.

The Commission was led by Professor Nick Pearce. Extensive evidence gathering took place between November 2019 and February 2020.

A key concern of the six Commissioners was to make bold recommendations to reduce inequalities in public participation and bring citizen power into the Council to improve public services and the quality of life of local people. The COVID-19 crisis, which occurred during the latter stages of the Commission’s work, gave a dramatic glimpse of the huge potential resources in the community and the willingness of local people to make a contribution to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood.

The “Newham Model” for more inclusive public participation

The resulting “Newham Model” aims to provide checks-and-balances to the way in which Newham is governed. It provides new participatory governance mechanisms. In particular, the Commission Report proposes the creation of a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, selected like a jury – the first of its kind in England. It suggests strengthening the accountability of the executive Mayor to local people and the main stakeholders of the Council, while also limiting the mandate of the executive Mayor to two terms, so that there is a frequent impulse for innovation and creative thinking at the centre of the Council.

Other key recommendations for strengthening public participation and co-production of public services and outcomes with local people are:

  • Extension of participatory budgeting – an increase in the resources allocated to areas or neighbourhoods for expenditure which is determined by local people from the current level of £25,000. The aim should be to spend a minimum of 20% of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) resources through neighbourhood or area-based participation.
  • A new framework for area-based decision-making – allowing powers to be drawn down to the most local level – along with the piloting of an ‘urban parish council’ in one of Newham’s communities.
  • A new “Mayor’s Office for Data, Discovery and Democracy” to provide expertise and leadership on the democratic use of data, digital tools for resident engagement, and learning from digital champions such as the government of Taiwan.
  • Wider use of co-production with residents and people accessing services, including area regeneration, which means that the local council needs to become much better at mapping what local people are doing, and want to do in the future.
  • Enabling local councillors to play the increasingly important role of ‘community connectors’, mobilising local people and their enthusiasms.
  • Support for an independent, community-owned local media organisation.

The Report of the Commission was launched on 6 July 2020 in a virtual public meeting, with presentations from the Commissioners, followed by responses by the Mayor and Vice-Mayor on behalf of the Council. Newham Council’s cabinet members will formally consider the commission’s report and recommendations at a later meeting.

Clearly, councils need to adapt the ‘Newham Model’ to fit their local circumstances, while simultaneously learning from democratic innovators in the UK and internationally.  Moreover, research institutions such as INLOGOV have an important role in sharing learning on new local governance models to help local government to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Nick Pearce is Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. He was formerly director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), as well as Head of the No 10 Downing St. Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010.

Elke Loeffler is a Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, and INLOGOV Associate. She is author of ‘Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’ and co-editor of ‘Palgrave Handbook of Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’, both of which will be published in autumn 2020.

Central Government, Evidence and Short-Term Strategies in the Support to Businesses and Local Economic Recovery in the Age of Covid

Tom Collinson

If there has been one mantra by which government policy has claimed to have lived by during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that it has been led by, guided by or that it is following the science. Intended to strike a reassuring tone, the claim to evidence was routinely emphasised by the government as either the Prime Minister or a deputy was flanked by a member of SAGE. When questioned on his previous disavowal of experts by Sky News at the beginning of the crisis, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, noted that these were economists he had referenced in the past, it was not established medical facts; suggesting that this time was different and that this science was different.

One article by the New York-based magazine The Atlantic even went so far as to claim that ‘Britain Just Got Pulled Back from the Edge’ as ‘the institutions and positions of state were…clicking into gear.’ While it appeared to be a rosy picture at the start, with the government publishing the scientific advice online, with a gesture that it would continue to do so, this tone quickly unravelled as the Guardian reported that non-scientists seemed to be advising government; there was no list of who exactly was in the SAGE group and why there were no (publicly available) minutes of the meetings and government advice was no longer transparent. Some of this has now changed.

All this has provoked an interesting question of the relationship between science, evidence and data-analysis with policy-making in the UK. How does one affect the other? Is it possible for one to distinguish between various forms of evidence in the policy-making process and make a judgement on which is the most appropriate? To distinguish between mathematical modelling, so-called evidence-based policy-making (that which traditionally elevates the role of Randomised Controlled Trials) and place-and-people contextualised policy? Is it possible to have what Kant called a constitutive judgement in public-policy? (I.e. a judgement which is not based on any further assumptions, hypothetical conditions or suppositions, such as values, narratives and aesthetics). For the past decade or so, there has been a growing literature on all of these questions and the urgency of the current pandemic has enlivened them.

These questions are of increasing interest to academics, journalists and opposition parties in the Anglosphere. With regards to the United Kingdom, the establishment of an ‘Independent SAGE group’ has been indicative of some dissent from the government’s claim to scientific unity.

For local government, these issues have taken on another interesting dimension, one that examines the relationship between governance and the collection and application of evidence in policy responses. In a report on the global picture of city-governments, the OECD has distinguished between two types of evidence-led responses. The first discusses local governments as instruments or ‘implementation vehicles of national measures such as confinement’. The second acknowledges the experimentation of ‘more bottom – up, innovative responses while… building on their unique proximity to citizens.’

Building on this insight, we can begin to describe a temporal framework, which provides further detail to the OECD’s report on the times when local government have been able to articulate their own evidence-based response and when the information and decision-making lies more in the hands of central government.

While it is still unclear where we are on the timescale of the virus or the response to it – which indeed make the articles in this post preliminary – this framework can be outlined on the basis of the short, medium and long term response to the epidemic. Such an approach is based on how councils themselves are articulating a response (using similar language such as the ‘rescue’, ‘recovery’, ‘rebuild’ or, ‘hammer’, ‘dance’ and ‘reconstruction’ as distinct phases in the plans).

Categorising policy responses in this way has a lot of precedent in the field of economics. With regards to the economics of a crisis, the same typology has been outlined by Professor Andy Pike, who’s presentation to the ‘Major Economic Shocks Workshop’ at the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth addresses the types of policy responses available with regards to the local economy, businesses, supply chains and labour markets in the three different time periods. The important point here is that in the short-term responses are direct, and contingent on the problem, whereas long-term responses are open-ended and rely on change. Short-term employment issues for example are addressed through subsistence allowances, while (re)training and entrepreneurship should be leveraged in the long-term. The same applies to supply chains; the short-term goal is to secure capacity and jobs through say refinancing, while in the long-term diversification and innovation is required.

Focussing on short-term strategies during the current epidemic and lockdown, the measures taken have exhibited the direct qualities that Pike addresses. However, these have often been delivered by way of decisions and information collected in the devolved governments and Downing Street. While there have been ongoing efforts by local authorities to assess immediate likely impacts – as seen in Cardiff and the West Midlands – the role of councils has largely been to act as something of a lightning rod (or courier, depending on how you judge their efficiencies) for UK government policies. While there has been some contestation around these matters from local councils, for example in the early closure of parks, the wide picture has been one of convergence throughout the country in a number of areas of practice, including areas of communication and awareness rising, social distancing, confinement and taking targeted measures to help vulnerable groups. In many cases, this has been guided by national government regulations and the ‘dos and donts’ policy responses, financial backing of £3.2bn to be awarded to councils in England to ensure a continuation of services, as well as some financial restrictions or ring-fencing.

The reliance on central government publications and financial backing has characterised the issue of supporting businesses and economic recovery too, where councils are in the front line for conducting policies made primarily in London but also Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. While there may be some differences between the England and the devolved assemblies – for example on the differences in the administration of business support in Wales and England, or the degree of discretion councils are exhibiting when it comes to business support, the general theme of subsistence pay to employees, business relief and grant funding through councils has taken the same shape throughout the country, as we can see from the following examples:

  • In England, the business relief announced by the Chancellor is being paid for by councils through the Small Business Grants Fund and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, and reimbursed to local authorities should the guidance published by the MHCLG be followed.
  • There is £6 billion in local authority payments of the Central Share of retained business rates that were due to be made over the next three months.
  • A £500 million Hardship Fund ‘of new grant funding to support economically vulnerable people and households in their local area’ administered through existing ‘local council tax support schemes’.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Government are offering a years relief on business rates to shops, leisure and hospitality businesses, and also offering small grants. Local councils are calculated to have distributed £508m to 41,000 businesses by the end of April.
  • In Scotland, Local Authorities are administering Small Business Support Grants as well as Retail, Hospitality, Leisure Support Grants of up to £10,000 and £25,000 respectively.
  • Similarly, in Northern Ireland a grant scheme of £25,000 for Retail, Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure has been offered, should the criteria outlined by the Northern Ireland Executive be followed.

In one of the foundational texts of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the governance structure of the ancien regime, whereby all administrative corridors in French political life led back to the King. Intendants hired by a King to administer a province in-turn hired a sub-delegate to administer canons, where the happiness or misfortune of individuals depended entirely on ‘the whole operation of the central government’. The argument for arranging matters in this centralised manner was a financial one – to levy taxes in order to guarantee the State’s safety. But this ultimately led to the downfall of the regime itself. While I’m not comparing the UK Government to the House of Bourbon, modernity offers a number of examples where centralisation – justified because of finance and security – tends towards political and social disintegration. Further examination will do well to determine whether there is a different path forward in the long-run response to this crisis.

 

Tom is a postgraduate researcher with an MA in Political Thought and a BSc in Economics and Politics from the University of Exeter. His main research interests are in modern political thought, with particular expertise in the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, on whom he wrote his thesis, rethinking the concept of political participation and civic action in modernity. Tom is now researching the role of local and central government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspecting how they complement and contrast one another. He tweets at @tzcll.

England’s over-centralisation isn’t just a governance issue now – it’s a public health emergency

Jessica Studdert

The concentration of power at Westminster and Whitehall has long frustrated those of us who engage closely with the structures of governance and compare it to decentralised norms across much of Europe. Now, as with so many facets of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has exposed national vulnerabilities and left us grappling with the consequences. The grip on initiative that rests in SW1 is one such weakness, which is impacting how our system is responding to the virus, in turn perpetuating the public health emergency we find ourselves in.

A degree of national direction is clearly needed in the midst of a serious pandemic. People look to the Government for leadership and reassurance. Those in positions of power certainly feel personal responsibility for leading the response. Measures to implement service strategy nationally, such as through the NHS, or to use national heft for international procurement buying power, are certainly necessary. But time after time during the unfolding crisis, the centralised instinct has clouded decision-making, with terrible results.

The structures for the top-down approach to the pandemic were set early on, when the Government chose not to deploy the existing Civil Contingencies Act which set out clear roles, responsibilities and resources for all local and national public bodies. They instead rushed the Coronavirus Act through Parliament, which gave the Executive a greater level of unchecked power and no defined local role. This has had ongoing consequences for the coordination of an effective response. Leaked findings from an internal Whitehall review found that local emergency planning teams believe their abilities have been compromised by a controlling and uncommunicative approach from the central government machine, which persistently withholds data and intelligence.

The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive. There has been a repeated preference for big, bold flashy schemes over smaller, sustained but potentially more impactful measures. In the early weeks of the crisis much media attention focussed on the new Nightingale hospitals, yet we are now seeing tragically how that time and resource could have been better invested in the more targeted shielding of hundreds of care homes. When faced with the need to quickly implement testing for Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Health reached for a high-profile 100,000 target and set up new large processing sites. This triumph of tactics over strategy directed the systemic response to focus on numbers over priority need and overlooked existing networks of local lab capacity. Even as attempts are made to set up contact tracing at scale to support the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Government seems to have more confidence in a new mobile app than it does existing local public health teams. This is despite the latter’s expertise in tracing the contacts of people who have highly infectious diseases and clear evidence from countries who have successfully managed their lockdown transition.

The formal power exercised at the centre is in direct contrast to the informal role for local authorities, which is having devastating consequences for their very viability. Because councils’ response has no statutory footing in the context of an emergency, they are left exposed to the whims of a few individuals making decisions in Westminster. At the start of the crisis, the Secretary of State for Local Government told local authorities to spend “whatever it takes” to protect their residents. Councils had immediately set about providing relief to shielded groups, protecting wider vulnerable groups and implementing public safety measures, all while ensuring essential services continued as usual. Rather than support these efforts, Government then rescinded this early clear backing, querying councils’ honesty over their cost assessments and leaving many facing a financial black hole.

The double standards central government imposes on its local counterparts is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to local government finance. An emergency on the scale of a global pandemic has required state-led responses on a scale inconceivable only months ago, and with widespread public approval. Central government spending has snowballed to accommodate unprecedented employee furlough schemes, emergency business support measures, not to mention the enormous costs to the NHS. The Chancellor has the leeway to respond to this through a number of different measures – incurring public debt, raising taxes, freezing public sector wages and reducing public spending, a combination of which he is reportedly considering.

Local government has no such room for fiscal manoeuvre. Councils are legally required to balance annual budgets and have only narrow revenue-raising powers through council tax and business rates which are themselves subject to centrally imposed controls. With a shock to their budgets of this scale they are at the mercy of decisions made by a few in Westminster. These have so far resulted in a couple of ad hoc cash injections of £1.6bn each, and a bit extra cobbled together earmarked for social care and rough sleepers – so far massively short of the estimated £10-13 billon shortfall councils collectively face.

It is no way to run a country. It never was, but in the context of the crisis the contradictions of our top-heavy system of governance are laid bare. The rumblings of discontent from Mayors in the north of England at their regions being side-lined, and from councils over plans to fully reopen schools in the absence of clear local test, track and trace infrastructure, suggest the popular tide is beginning to turn against blanket centrally-imposed measures. As local government is increasingly being seen as better placed to protect their residents, particularly in the context of a Government that is increasingly mis-stepping, there may now be an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how our country should be run in the interests of everyone.

Jessica Studdert is deputy director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a Londonbased think-tank. She leads NLGN’s thought leadership and research, and contributes strategic oversight of the organisation. Prior to joining NLGN, Jessica was political adviser to the Labour Group at the LGA. She led policy there, working closely on public service reform and devolution. Previously she worked in policy roles in the voluntary sector for a street homelessness and a childcare charity, and she began her career at the Fabian Society.

The Global City: Lessons from Combined Authorities

Marc Vilalta Reixach

Over the last decades, we have been witness to a global phenomenon of increasing urbanisation of the territory. In many countries around Europe – among them, Spain – we can easily identify the trend towards the creation of large urban areas, which concentrate a large percentage of the population and plays an essential role in economic activity. Although, without a doubt, these new metropolitan spaces offer multiple opportunities for their inhabitants, they also pose important challenges, not only in the social, environmental or economic context but also in terms of their legal organization.

Indeed, the fact that the dimension of the great conurbations exceeds the administrative limits of a single municipality forces the different public authorities to seek legal instruments that allow them to face the common challenges posed by the administration of these spaces. For example, in Spain, although our legal system provide for the possibility to create real metropolitan governments, our public authorities have mainly opted to respond to this phenomenon through the use vertical collaboration or by creating specific metropolitan agencies. In fact, in Spain, only Barcelona has created a comprehensive level of metropolitan governance to organise this space (with the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona).

This failure is often explained in the Spanish literature by the configuration of the metropolitan areas as a formula not always desired by the municipalities (as it is imposed by law) or by those charged with creating them (the regions, Comunidades Autónomas), who have generally viewed them as a strong local counter-power.

This is why we decided to put on our attention to other comparative legal experiences. Although we are not trying to import techniques from other legal systems, we believe that the study of comparative law could help us to better understand and manage our own reality.

And, from this perspective, the English legal system provides a very interesting point of comparison, because, after numerous regulatory changes, a novel organizational solution has recently been established for large urban areas in England: combined authorities.

After analysing the legal regime of the English combined authorities, what insights can be gleaned from the study of combined authorities? In my opinion, the English combined authority model allows us to draw at least two main ideas that could be useful for the Spanish authorities in addressing the metropolitanization of our territory.

  1. Diversity and flexibility. One of the main characteristics of the English model is that combined authorities are configured – at least theoretically – in a variable, flexible way, both in terms of territorial boundaries and functions. This allows large urban areas to adapt their institutional organization to the specific requirements for each territory. In this sense, unlike Spanish metropolitan areas, the creation of the combined authorities has been seen as a bottom-up process, in which all the levels of government have played an active role (even when the political-partisan dynamics was not coincidental), promoting an attempt to decentralize England territorially.
  2. Democratic governance. The evolution of the combined authorities in England has allowed them to assume a notable variety of powers (in transport, housing,…), thus meaning that they play a more active role in the implementation of public policies at the metropolitan scale. Thus, this evolution has imposed on them a model of democratic governance, through the direct election of the metropolitan mayor. The metro mayor can contribute not only to strengthened leadership and external projection of combined authorities, but also to their democratic representativeness and to the creation of a metropolitan identity shared by the citizens of these territories. In my view, this is also an interesting idea, because even the metropolitan area of Barcelona (which is the metropolitan government with a greater degree of institutionalization) is indirectly elected and without a metro mayor.

Marc Vilalta Reixach is lecturer of Administrative Law at the University of Barcelona (Spain). His research focus on local government law, inter-administrative relations and public procurement law. During the last term he has been visiting researcher at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) of the University of Birmingham.

 

What if December 12th were repeated in the May mayorals?

Chris Game

I’m not unrealistic.  I didn’t expect the Queen in the few hundred words written for her Queen’s Speech to chatter on that much about local government and councils – and she didn’t.  I did think, though, they might get some attention in the 150-page Background Briefing Notes.  But, no.  In the literally brief note on English Devolution (pp.109-10), ‘councils’ per se aren’t mentioned.  The search did, however, make me realise how crowded it’s going to be out there, as “each part of the country” gets “to decide its own destiny”.

The Government “remains committed” to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway, and, I think, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly aren’t going anywhere soon.  Indeed, they may well be hoping to get their hands on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural and Investment Funds. And quite possibly too on the PM’s own £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with, for starters, 100 Town Deal Boards, chaired “where appropriate” by someone from the private sector.

Then there are the UK Government agencies that Johnson wants to relocate out of London, with their existing civil servants or any who aren’t “super-talented weirdo” enough to pass the Dominic Cummings test.

The one democratic element of this increasingly crowded world that does receive more than a passing mention in the Briefing Notes are Mayoral Combined Authorities (CAs) and City Region Mayors, with talk of increasing the number of mayors and doing more devo deals. There weren’t many stats in this section, but one did catch my eye: “37 per cent of residents in England, including almost 50 per cent in the North, are now served by city region mayors with powers and money to prioritise local issues.”

With CA mayoral elections coming up in early May, I did a few quick sums. The current party split among the nine elected mayors, including London, is 5-4 to Labour.  The population split, though, is close to 3-1, with Mayor Andy Street’s West Midlands contributing over half the Conservative total.  And Street’s victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in May 2017 was knife-edge: by 0.7% of the 523,000 votes cast.

I sense you’re ahead of me.  If, in the coming May elections, West Midlands voters were to return a Labour mayor, leaving Conservative mayors governing, say, barely one in eight of that 37% of residents, would a Conservative PM still be as enthusiastic about devolution to mayoral CAs?  We know for near-certain that Theresa May wouldn’t have been, but Johnson, as on most things, is less predictable. 

Anyway, it seemed worth asking: what would happen in the May mayoral elections, which include London this time, if everyone voted just as they did in December’s General Election?  Happily, Centre for Cities’ Simon Jeffrey got there first, so the stats are his, the interpretation mine.

First, though, a quick reminder of the broader context of those 2017 mayoral elections, and what’s happened since.  When Andy Street launched his bid for the West Midlands mayoralty, and even when he was officially selected as Conservative candidate, there looked like being only five of these new CA mayors.

Moreover, all five – Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, Tees Valley, and West Midlands – might easily, given their borough councils’ political make-ups, have produced Labour ‘metro mayors’.  Whereupon, it seems likely that, to say the least, Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for serious devolution to metro mayoral CAs would have waned somewhat.

However, things changed. Sheffield’s election, following a dispute over the inclusion of Derbyshire local authorities, was postponed until 2018, and two far less metropolitan (and more Conservative-inclined) CAs were established – West of England (Bristol) and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – just in time for the 2017 elections. 

With Tees Valley also going Conservative, Prime Minister May saw an initially possible 0-5 redwash turn into a remarkable 4-2 triumph – as reported on this blog. The political merits and possibilities of devolution, particularly to the West Midlands – bearing in mind that Labour overwhelmingly controlled Birmingham Council and formed the largest party group in five of the other six boroughs – suddenly seemed much more obvious.

Since then, though, the pendulum has swung. A reconfigured Sheffield CA and new North of Tyne CA have both elected Labour mayors, evening up the CA party balance at 4-4, but giving a score among the now ‘Big 5’ metros (populations over 1.3 million) of 4-1 to Labour, including Greater London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Jeffrey’s sums show that Mayor Khan would be re-elected easily, likewise Labour’s Steve Rotheram in Liverpool.  In Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham would be re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority.  And the collapsing ‘red wall’ would have more than doubled Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen’s majority in Tees Valley.

And so to the West Midlands, which also saw plenty of “Red wall turning blue”, “No such thing any more as a Labour safe seat” headlines. It felt as if the Conservative vote had to be ahead, and it was … but by under 3,000 out of 1.18 million, or 0.2%! 

Yes, even replicating the Conservatives’ most decisive electoral win for a generation, it could be that tight.  And, if it were Labour’s eventual candidate who edged it, that would see Labour metro mayors as the elected heads of government in London and all four largest city region CAs, representing nearly a third of the English population. ‘Everything still to play for’ seems an understatement.

Chris Game - picChris Game 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.

Combined Authority logos – do they do it for you?

It’s 100 days since the election of our first six Combined Authority mayors – a symbolic juncture that a year ago prompted quite a debate about new London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s impressive output of announcements and initiatives and also the substance behind them.

It would be good to attempt a similar overview of the records of the new CA mayors, but, sad to admit, that’s beyond the capability of this blogger at this time. But even sadder, I felt, to ignore the date completely, and I’ve therefore pinched (sorry, was inspired by, as we say in academia) the thought behind the opening musings of Local Government Chronicle editor Nick Golding’s recent column on CAs.

By their choice of corporate logos, at least, he was unimpressed: “curiously similar symbols … series of coloured dots or slivers that come together in a wheel or a line”, and likely to leave their wider populations cold and/or bewildered. They could easily represent, he suggested, a legal partnership, or one of the management consultancies involved in their design, none being “as emotive as Warwickshire’s bear and ragged staff, Liverpool’s liver bird, or the white rose of Yorkshire.”

Overlooking that Googling ‘white rose logo’ nowadays will get you an insurance company, a shopping centre, and a facelift long before you get anywhere near a council, you can see his point. And if you don’t, see what you make of this lot:

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.09.47

These certainly colourful creations include the logos of – and in five cases specifically commissioned for – our six new CAs, presumably designed to communicate at a glance to local residents something really distinctive about their identity and function. Just to remind you, and in case most seem worryingly interchangeable, we’re looking for Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Cambridge/Peterborough. Oh yes, and, assuming they’d surely be easily distinguishable, I added in a couple of popular private sector logos.

Of course, the CAs – and indeed you – could reasonably point out that these symbols are generally accompanied by the CA’s actual name. Which is true – but in turn prompts the question: so why bother with the indecipherable and hardly costless logo?

As it happens, one – the proverbial granddaddy CA,Greater Manchester – hasn’t bothered. The pile of building blocks – each representing, as generally in these logos, a constituent council – is actually the logo of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), the GMCA’s longstanding and still extant predecessor, and the CA presents itself to the world logo-free.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.09.52

There is, I think, a serious point here. I know nothing worthwhile about the advertising business, but I do know that a logo’s primary, if not sole, purpose is to identify the product or business, and establish instant brand recognition. These CA logos don’t come close to doing either. Which is why they look fundamentally so different from pretty well all really successful brand logos, which have the product name as an integral part of the logo.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.09.57

In these earliest versions of the “most iconic brand logos of all time”, before the instant recognition was almost universal, the product name is absolutely central, if not the logo itself – the one exception here being the crazy guy who thought it might be a fun idea to name his computer after part of his fruitarian diet.

Even the Nike ‘Swoosh’, the sole symbol of the company for over two decades now, was for the previous two accompanied by the Nike name. Yet we’re expected to remember whether our CA is the one represented by a pile of coloured plates, a child’s windmill, or a curly string of different-sized hexagons.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, though, comparing these admittedly quite pretty images with those designed to sell some of the most popular products on the planet. So I looked at the logos of the seven constituent councils of our WestMidlands CA. They’re collectively a bit yesterday, but most do at least attempt to integrate their name into the logo design, rather than just sticking it alongside as all the CAs except West Yorkshire do.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.10.04

West Yorkshire CA’s slightly more artistic effort, if you hadn’t already checked, is the string of hexagons, representing its five constituent authorities plus the non-constituent City of York – another possibly ‘inspired’ idea, in this case from one that Sandwell made earlier.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.10.09

You can see why Sandwell councillors were keen on a makeover. Even without the dreadful events of recent weeks, you probably don’t want tower blocks as a prominent feature in your corporate identity, especially if your housing policy claims to have knocked more of them down than anywhere else in Europe. Surely almost anything’s better than that, even a design that looks disconcertingly like a question mark: possibly ‘What are we all doing here?’ or even ‘Where on earth is Sandwell?’

It derives (of course!) from Sandwell Priory, a small Benedictine monastery near West Bromwich, which, dissolved 450 years previously, could be trusted to cause only moderate offence to councillors representing the six real towns whose civic names would disappear in the 1974 local government reorganisation.

As for Coventry, when you’ve got a genuine 11th Century Lady Godiva with even an embroidered erotic backstory, you wonder how the city’s coat of arms with, in clockwise formation, a black eagle, wild cat, mythical phoenix, and elephant (don’t ask!), lasted so long.

Which brings us to Birmingham’s logo, and what my students used to reckon is the cheekiest bit of corporate political propaganda in English local government.  Earnestly as I’d explain about it depicting the city at the heart of England, they’d see two arrows, a smaller Conservative one pointing backwards and a bigger red one pointing forwards, and speculate on how the councillors got away with it.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 18.10.15

 

gameChris Game 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.