Spending beyond Your Means during a Recession? Not So Much for Local Governments Constrained by Fiscal Rules

Lang (Kate) Yang
The Great Recession, which started nearly a decade ago, may feel like a distant memory for some, as the United States economy is expanding for a ninth consecutive year. However, local governments in the nation still experience turmoil in their finances. National League of Cities’ 2016 City Fiscal Conditions report shows that city revenue has recovered to about 96 percent of precession (2006) levels. While many cities have improved service provision efficiency or cut back services and workforce during the recession, another option to weather the shock is to run a deficit and spend beyond the means. While structural or persistent fiscal imbalances are undesirable for local officials and can even lead to credit rating downgrades, deficit financing during recessionary periods may be justified for maintaining the necessary level of public service provision when regular tax and other revenue collection does not suffice.

Local governments achieve deficit spending through either borrowing or dipping into their reserves, if they have built one going in to a recession. Neither option is free. Borrowing from banks or investors on the municipal bond market requires interest payments, while leaving that reserve alone usually means investment returns. To what extent local governments are willing to take on a deficit during the recession depends on factors including local governing structure, managerial preference and expertise, level of savings, access to the debt market, and the capacity of paying back debt or replenishing reserves after the recession ends.

It is the last factor and its relationship with tax and expenditure limits that I explore in the recent paper published in Local Government Studies. Tax and expenditure limits are fiscal rules imposed on local governments by state governments (through legislations) and statewide voters (through referendums) to limit how much revenue localities can raise in any given year. For example, the famous Proposition 13 in California limits annual real estate tax on a parcel of property to one percent of its assessed value and the assessed value can only increase by a maximum of two percent per year. For cities constrained by a tax and expenditure limit, their capacity of paying back debt or replenishing reserves is predictably limited. The paper explores whether these cities were less likely to deficit spend during and after the Great Recession than unconstrained cities.

Data collected from the largest 50 cities’ comprehensive annual financial report show that cities subject to a tax and expenditure limit indeed were less likely to spend beyond their means. Their expenditure levels grew at a slower pace. As a result, their net assets, which are assets net of any payback liabilities, decreased at a slower pace as well. The difference between cities subject to tax and expenditure limits and unconstrained cities was especially pronounced immediately after the crisis (years 2011 and 2012), possibly because cities first pursued other means of weathering the shock than cutbacks and because the hit on city finance is delayed compared to the hit on the general economy.

Many cities saw their streetlights shut off, community centers shuttered, and bus services cancelled during the recession. While some may rather prefer the cuts than spending, others may see the value of maintaining a stable level of service provision despite decreased revenue collection. Although the paper refrains from evaluating whether deficit spending in general is beneficial to city governments and residents, it is ultimately a decision up to the localities. The paper finds that fiscal rules imposed by a higher-level government have an impact on city financial decisions. This finding indicates that deficit financing following a recession is no longer a “pure” local decision. Financial management conservatism caused by tax and expenditure limits might have contributed to more painful cuts in some cities than others.

 

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Lang (Kate) Yang is an assistant professor at George Washington University. Her research interest includes state and local government taxation, budgeting, and financial management. Her recent publications in Public Budgeting & Finance and National Tax Journal examine how local governments respond to fiscal rules imposed by higher-level governments.

All in A Day’s Work: Mental Health Provision, Wellbeing and Scrutiny in Brent Council

Cllr. Ketan Sheth

As Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee at Brent Council, Cllr. Sheth has a behind the scenes look at the workings of local government. Here he shares his experience in trying to improve Brent’s mental health provision and his views on what good local authority overview and scrutiny looks like. 

One in four people will experience mental ill health at some point in their lives – so it is likely all of us will directly or indirectly need support from the valuable services that support people to recover and to remain resilient.

Mental health – a once under-reported and some would say under-valued aspect of our health and wellbeing – has been making headlines recently and is a stated national priority. Earlier this year the Prime Minister announced plans to transform mental health services with a particular focus on children and young people. This was subsequently followed by an announcement last month by the Health Secretary of a plan to create 21,000 new posts, investing £1.3bn by 2020. Again, the commitment to mental health services for children and young people was affirmed.

This brings a welcome focus given children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing can ultimately shape their life chances and outcomes. So now we must think about how we – as a local authority overview and scrutiny committee – understand what is going on behind the headlines and – as elected councillors – continue to shine the spotlight locally.

Scrutiny work that adds a real value and makes a positive difference to local residents’ lives must remember a number of important factors: are elected councillors supported to carry out a meaningful review? Do they understand how to capture the service model? Do they understand how to draw out the challenges to effective delivery of that model? Do they have the tools and information they need to be responsive local decision makers?

In Brent, my Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee recently went behind those headlines to better understand mental health provision for children and young people across Brent and to see how we might add value to the current service model. A Task and Finish Group on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) was set up to review this complex area, and their report makes for very interesting read.

The task group was put in place to gather evidence – qualitative evidence from face-to-face interviews and research, and quantitative data and this was done alongside NHS Brent CCG, local health providers, schools and further education representatives and community representatives. I want to highlight two things my committee learnt in undertaking this work.

Firstly, the involvement of young people in this research was vital. Let’s face it, elected councillors in a local authority tend to be far older than the demographic we were seeking to reach, so it was incredibly helpful to have the input and perspectives of young people. We appointed a former member of Brent Youth Parliament (now a student at King’s College London) and they brought an excellent viewpoint to the task group’s work and deliberations.

Secondly, it was essential we recognised and embraced the complexity of this area. CAMHS is a complex and challenging subject for overview and scrutiny members because it cuts across local government and health responsibilities. Whilst this is excellent news for integrated care, it means you must be able to grasp and work across a range of people and organisations. You must also recognise the child or young person and their family and carers are a vital part of this system and network of care, and understand their perspective as well.

Effective scrutiny can be a powerful vehicle for change if committee members can stand back and really understand what is happening across local government and health services. If we are honest, overview and scrutiny committees nationally have varying relationships with public sector colleagues; however, in Brent, my committee’s relationship with NHS Brent CCG and wider health services is a good one. We try to be constructive and fair in forming our recommendations, especially in areas where we think things could be done differently and outcomes could be improved.

We have now made our recommendations to the Brent Council Cabinet and NHS colleagues and will monitor progress as a result. In Brent we will ensure mental health for adults and children and young people remains on the agenda, irrespective of the headlines.

To read the CAMHS task group report, visit http://www.brent.gov.uk/scrutiny.

 

 

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Cllr. Ketan Sheth is a Councillor for Tokyngton, Wembley in the London Borough of Brent. Ketan has been a councillor since 2010 and was appointed as Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in May 2016. Before his current appointment in 2016, he was the Chair of Planning, of Standards, and of the Licensing Committees. Ketan is a lawyer by profession and sits on a number of public bodies, including as the Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

Combined Authority mayors – their first 100 days

Chris Game

My recent blog, endeavouring to mark our first six Combined Authority mayors’ 100 days in office by comparing their CAs’ corporate logos, was accompanied by a regret about not offering something more substantive. Prompted partly by the recent encouragement to prospective contributors to “accompany your blog, if possible, with a photo or image”, this is an attempt to do so.

The other, completely indispensable, prompt was the Local Government Chronicle team’s recent extensive assessment of the mayors’ first 100 days. For other purposes, I tabulated some of the LGC data, which enables more to be fitted into one blog than might otherwise be possible, and also explains the tables’ West Midlands upper case emphasis.

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The first table is compiled from Mark Smulian’s pay analysis, showing that, dividing the mayors’ annual salaries by the size of the population they serve, the “cheapest” mayor is West Midlands’ Andy Street – his £79,000 p.a. representing just under 3p per head. The calculation formula is obviously crucial. Street’s is far from the lowest salary, but it’s nearly a third lower than Andy Burnham’s in the slightly less populous Greater Manchester. And it remains lower (2.8p against 3.4p), even allowing for Burnham’s first public mayoral act being to launch a homelessness fund, pledge 15% of his own salary towards it, and encourage others to do likewise.

More conventional comparisons – based, say, on the CAs’ budgets – are difficult, since, beyond their Investment Fund and transport grants, we’ve little idea of what they’ll eventually be. So, for what it’s worth, by the same measure Sadiq Khan costs Londoners 1.7p p.a., and Birmingham City Council leader, John Clancy, costs me 6p. Which is only fractionally less than will WMCA chief executive, Birmingham-born, -raised and -university educated Deborah Cadman, both highly regarded and highly rewarded.

Before venturing further, it’s worth emphasising how arbitrary this 100 days business is. Good politics for the guy who coined the now gimmicky cliché: US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, already New York Governor, campaigning for about the most powerful executive office in the world on the measures required to deal with the Great Depression. But tough for, say, Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen – five opposition years as a Conservative Stockton-on-Tees councillor, and expecting, probably up to election day, to continue running his sporting goods business, rather than a CA comprising entirely Labour-run councils; or Tim Bowles, similarly a backbench councillor in South Gloucestershire, before heading a West of England CA with even less certainty about its identity than the West Midlands.

Moreover, personal experience aside, it’s simply unrealistic to expect in barely three months a substantial record of policy achievement – in a completely new office, with a skeletal organisation, in which personally the incumbents can’t, Trump-like, sign daily executive orders, or indeed actually DO a great deal. One thing, however, they can be expected to do is to staff that skeletal organisation by making top appointments. In the West of England and Liverpool City Region they haven’t, and in their differing ways both seem concerning.

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In the West of England, it seems they’re simply slow to emerge from – or possibly even get into – what Mayor Bowles terms ‘start-up mode’. It’s easy – though here, as I’ll suggest, possibly misguided – to question the real-world value of some of the other measures in the table: the ministerial hobnobbing, press releases and suchlike. But to be eating the dust on everything – even the “notable mayoral achievements” were suggested by me! – and still apparently unclear on even your CA’s eventual organisational size, doesn’t look good, either to councillors or an already sceptical public, whom Bowles has already cost over 2p a head.

In the now six-borough Liverpool City Region – as opposed to the fomer five-borough Merseyside Met County Council, which is perhaps part of the issue – the problem seems more obvious. It’s dissent: personal, political and geographical. First, there’s the evidently ongoing power struggle between Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and metro mayor Steve Rotheram, dating back at least to the latter’s victory over the former in the battle for the metro candidacy. Then there’s the inter-borough stuff, with St Helens most openly but probably others too continuing to question the whole CA-based devolution exercise as “set up to help the cities. The councils who align with Liverpool can control things. The whole concept is flawed.”

The concept’s creator, George Osborne – and no doubt Mayors Rotheram and Burnham – would like Theresa May to revive his Northern Powerhouse project by announcing at either the Conservative Conference or in the Autumn Statement some version of HS3, linking Liverpool to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and even Hull. But, with these cities having not one Conservative MP between them, it seems, for this PM, an unlikely priority.

And here those listed ministerial meetings surely do mean something – most obviously that “the ministerial access and contact with senior echelons of government that the mayors have been afforded is more than council leaders and chief executives would normally expect”. And while his defeated Labour opponent Siôn Simon may label Mayor Street as “Tory London’s man in the West Midlands”, in this case it was the Tory Minister who did the calling: Business Secretary Greg Clark, who, in person and in this very university, delivered the Government’s confirmation of a second devolution deal.

In doing so, moreover, Clark kickstarted a policy affecting potentially the whole of English local government that for the previous 12 months seemed almost completely to have stalled. For that reason alone, and with due acknowledgement of Andy Burnham’s adept handling of the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bomb attack, and the other mayors’ early achievements in this artificially short time span, Mayor Andy Street has to be the recipient of my Michael Fish award for just possibly prompting a change in the local government weather.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris 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.

Unlocking research for local government

Jason Lowther

 

This post originally appeared on the Solace website. You can find it here

Local government needs evidence, from the apparently mundane but nonetheless critical (‘What choice of cladding will minimise the risk of fire spreading?’) to extraordinary insights (‘How do people choose what to eat and whether to be active?’, ‘What skills will today’s youngsters need in the jobs market of 2050?’)

In 2014, Solace commissioned an initial Local Government Knowledge Navigator (LGKN) report, From Analysis to Action: Connecting Research and Local Government in an Age of Austerity, which demonstrated that:

1. Councils have a wide range of evidence needs;
2. There is relevant research and expertise in academia but local government doesn’t make the most of this;
3. There are some impressive examples of collaboration between academia and local authorities but engagement is inconsistent, and often depends on existing links between individual researchers and local government officers or politicians; and
4. There is a need for a change of culture in both communities, and the development of more systematic approaches to achieving connectivity between them.

The key issues identified around local authorities’ approach to successful engagement were:

– senior appreciation of and support for research evidence;
– experience of using research and data to inform decision-making;
– consortia, to spread the cost and reduce risks to reputation;
– support from brokers with the expertise and time to develop proposals;
– the ability and skills to successfully commission research (or access to them); and
– local authority research teams and service managers establishing relationships with local universities.

Following the LGKN work, Solace continued working with the ESRC and LGA through the Research Facilitator, and has established dedicated spokespeople on evidence-based policy.  Recently, it supported the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Nesta in producing the document “Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny” which launched last month, and which aims to help local government make better use of research evidence.

Recent research has highlighted that local government has particular ways of looking at research that differ from much of academia (including the traditional approaches of public health colleagues).  Local government recognises the importance of ‘place’, and the uniqueness of each area’s situation and background.  As a result, we are particularly interested in evidence, including particular expertise, which relates directly to our place, and this can come across as only being interested in evidence that is ‘home grown’.

When Gemma Phillips and Judith Green recently looked at the transition of public health from the NHS to local government, they found that this different culture reflects local government’s more holistic view of health and wellbeing (rather than healthcare services), and our focus on practicality (rather than the provenance and methodological rigour of research studies).

Austerity has meant less government spending on research and evaluation, particularly at local level, although in 2015/16 national government still invested £5.6 billion in science and research, including £178m in ESRC alone.  So if we want research that government (including local government) will practically use, we probably have to get smarter in terms of more targeted funding, and in particular presenting local government as a key solution to the ‘Impact’ agenda which is vital to universities’ research funding.

This suggests to me that local government needs to take a much more active role in influencing the research agenda locally.  It’s not enough to rely on a kind of ‘Brownian Motion’ in the hope that academics’ research interests will in some way coincide with the policy priorities of local government.  We need to let academics know what our policy priorities are, and to listen to them as they explain what is already known in the relevant fields, and how further research might help us address these priorities.

In the West Midlands, as part of a comprehensive partnership with local universities, the Combined Authority this week set out a clear agenda for research related to its policy priorities for the next three years.  Developed from its Strategic Economic Plan, this includes both economic and social (public service reform) policy priorities, and further development of information sharing and the use of evaluation.  The WMCA ‘Policy Research Plan’ has been developed with input from policy leads and academic experts identified across the local universities and agencies, who will now take forward the agreed activities in a common programme.

So, for example, around ‘connected autonomous vehicles’ we are interested in exploring how emerging technologies can be exploited to improve transport accessibility and reduce subsidy costs whilst supporting enhanced network performance.  Around ‘vulnerable offender pathways’, we need to understand areas where regional working can add most value, together with the offence profile and pathways for specific groups, such as young person and women offenders.

Developing the Plan has compelled policy leads to be much more explicit about the questions they need answering to take forward the policy priorities, and has enabled academic experts to engage in developing these into research-able questions.  As this engagement continues, we expect further synergies to develop giving us much more robust and ‘actionable’ research in future.

References

Local Government Knowledge Navigator reports

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_Analysis_to_Action.pdf

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_LA_research_collaboration.pdf

Phillips, Gemma, and Judith Green. “Working for the public health: politics, localism and epistemologies of practice”, Sociology of health & illness 37.4 (2015): 491-505.

Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny

WMCA Policy Research Plan

https://governance.wmca.org.uk/documents/s287/Appendix.pdf

 

lowther-jasonJason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Council leaders: the importance of being more than earnest

Oscar Wilde’s imperious Lady Bracknell, being both fictional and approaching her 20th decade, was rather ruled out from chairing the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, despite her familiarity with certainly the posher parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We can surmise, though, her views on being earnest as a quality in political leaders: important, yes; sufficient, no.

We can also imagine her pronouncement to Jack Worthing, discovered as a parentless infant in a handbag in a London railway station cloakroom. For K & C council to lose one leader, whose chief merits seemed to be earnestness plus length of council service, may be regarded as a misfortune; to replace him with another, with apparently even fewer compelling qualifications, looks like carelessness.

The council’s early failures even to recognise the scale and nature of the crisis it faced have been well aired, including in these columns, culminating in the peremptory, and probably costly, dismissal of the council’s Chief Executive by Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid. Almost inevitably, though, further heads seemed bound to – and continue to – roll, first being that of the Leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. 30-plus years as a K & C councillor, council leader for four, former cabinet member for leisure services, he lacked, unfortunately, first-hand familiarity with tower block building regulations, polyethylene-filled aluminium panel cladding, and all the other techie stuff on which the nation’s chat show presenters are now such aggressive authorities.

But Paget-Brown was visibly there, soon after the fire, being earnest and contrite. Unlike his deputy, who had (and, according to the council’s evidently traumatised website, still had, three weeks after his resignation) “specific responsibility for promoting better housing for residents”. Despite having overseen the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and prettification, at the crucial time he appeared to keep even his earnestness to himself.

In accordance with our rather flexible notions of electoral accountability, the resignation of both senior politicians was deemed necessary, if not in any practical way beneficial. Hence the election as new council leader of Elizabeth Campbell – from one of the more affluent areas in the south of the borough, a cabinet member at the time of the fire, and who couldn’t remember, when first asked, exactly whether or not she’d ever entered a residential tower block.

Like her predecessor, Campbell was hugely apologetic and earnest. But her media performances did seem to highlight the basic question of what we can reasonably expect of our councils’ elected representatives – as opposed to their paid, trained, specialist and supposedly expert officers – in our ever-larger scale, overstretched, underfunded, centrally dominated, under-respected system of so-called local government.

Kensington & Chelsea is, excepting the City of London, the smallest London borough by population. Yet its councillors, like Campbell and Paget-Brown – and obviously even more so those of our over 120 larger urban authorities – have somehow to attempt personally to represent and respond to the needs of between, on average, four times as many residents (Belgium, Spain) and over 20 times (France) as their counterparts in other major Western European countries.

Faced with a technical and human disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower, could any elected local political leader(s) have the combination of personal attributes, training and experience to be able to react meaningfully, and even conceivably make a substantive contribution to its prevention?

It’s largely a rhetorical question – but not entirely. For, almost by chance – well, in writing a paper for the recent IASIA-MENAPAR Conference in Ramallah – I came across one who might have fitted K & C’s recent personal and political requirements remarkably closely. I refer to the recently elected mayor of the Palestinian West Bank town of Azzun – similar in area to K & C, but with a much smaller population, and a necessarily circuitous two-hour road journey north west of Jerusalem.

The new mayor is considerably younger than K & C’s leaders, but compensates with a CV they – and possibly even some officers – would have given much for in recent days: an electrical engineering degree, work as a contracting engineer in Jericho and as a supervisory engineer for CHF (Cooperative Housing Foundation) International, interspersed with volunteer social work back in Azzun. Oh yes, and I nearly forgot, Mayor Yusra Mohammed Badwan is a woman: a 25-year old, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, whose Arabic would also have come in handy, given its reputation as Kensington’s second language.

Badwan is, of course, highly unusual, but not unique. Palestine’s conservative and patriarchal culture makes for an even more male-dominated and sexist local government environment than that in England and Wales pilloried in this month’s Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission report. Yet, against the odds, it has produced some exceptional women mayors – and certainly more than resulted from our own metro-mayoral elections (which formed half the focus of my conference paper: ‘If Palestine can elect women mayors, why do English city regions find it so hard?’).

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They include Janet Mikhail, a Roman Catholic, who in 2005 assembled a remarkable ‘Ramallah for All’ Christian-Islamist coalition to defeat Fatah, the dominant West Bank party, in the Palestine National Authority’s administrative capital. And, more recently, Vera Baboun, a former university professor, who was the (necessarily Christian) Mayor of Bethlehem until her also multi-faith independent alliance was defeated in this May’s elections, incidentally depriving her of the thrill of hosting President Donald Trump on his first overseas jaunt.

But back to Badwan, clearly undaunted by her new role: “mayors have many tasks – developing the town by organising housing projects, establishing public facilities such as parks and libraries, paving roads, improving services such as sanitation and water, and making sure residential neighbourhoods stay clean.”

Her biggest and permanent challenge, though, is “the Israeli occupation”. Like so much of the West Bank which under the 1993 Oslo Accords was to be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction”, Azzun has been under full Israeli military and civil control – or, as Badwan puts it, “Israeli siege” – throughout her life.

It’s a different sort of torment from Grenfell Tower, but, as was depressingly illustrated in the recent Commons debate, social media users can be careless of such subtle details. So, if your Arabic is up to it, check out Azzun municipality’s Facebook page, and you may still find: “Are there no men left in Azzun? Why did you accept a woman? The great town of Azzun has become a joke.”  And from another charmer: “A people that has allowed a woman to rule will never succeed”.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris 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.