The 13 NOC counties and unitaries: runners, riders and results

[This post, incorporating the final results, was updated by the author on 5th June 2013]

Chris Game

In May 2010 David Cameron and Nick Clegg took just five days to form their national coalition. By contrast, starting in June 2010, the Belgians took 18 months to form theirs. English local government falls between the two.

It’s well over a month now since the national media completed their coverage of the local elections. They’d added up the seats won and lost by the various parties, calculated the national vote share they’d have received if the elections had been held in different parts of the country, and how many seats they’d have won in a 2015 General Election – but they left as unfinished business the 13 county and unitary councils they conveniently lumped together in their tables as ‘NOC’ (No Overall Control). And, though it was a short sprint by Belgian standards, it took most of that month for most of us to learn, in several of these 13 cases, the answer to that basic question the elections were supposedly about: who will actually govern?

The reasons are various: more parties, plus variegated independents, involved in negotiations; party leaders losing their own seats, or having to be re-elected or deposed at party meetings; and, above all, the fact that any inter-party agreements can only be officially implemented at pre-scheduled Annual Council Meetings, which, in some of the affected councils, only took place in the last week of May.

This blog attempts to fill in the gaps. It’s a kind of ‘runners and riders’ guide to the 13 county and unitary councils in which no single party has a majority of seats: how they got that way, and what subsequently happened.

game table june 2013

First, the counties, in alphabetical order. CAMBRIDGESHIRE, along with Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and to a lesser extent East Sussex, was one of the previously staunchly Conservative counties that became hung largely as a result of being UKIPped. As the BBC map shows, this was a much patchier experience than was suggested by some commentators at the time – with 7 of the 27 counties still having no UKIP councillors at all and only 4, all in the south and east, having more than 10.

game map may 17

Source: BBC News

The Conservative leader, Nick Clarke, was one of those who lost his seat to UKIP, and the party’s remaining 32 seats left them well short of a majority. The new leader, Martin Curtis, wanted to go it alone as a minority administration, but the Independents ruled that out, while Labour and the Lib Dems refused to join UKIP in supporting an Independent-led non-Conservative rainbow coalition. Eventually, the Conservatives got half their cake: Curtis will head a minority administration for 12 months, but then UKIP’s preference, for ‘opening up’ council decision-making, kicks in and cabinets will be replaced by all-party committees.

In CUMBRIA, previously run by a Con/Lab/Independent coalition, the elections effectively reversed the standings of the Conservatives and Labour, with the latter regaining their customary position as largest party, and the slightly strengthened Lib Dems in the role of potential kingmakers. Under a new leader, Jonathan Stephenson, they opted for coalition with Labour, deputy leadership of the council, and four cabinet posts.

EAST SUSSEX is a much smaller council than Cambridgeshire, but proportionately the party arithmetic is broadly similar. Here, though, the other parties seem readier to accept a Conservative minority administration, and, as in Cambridgeshire, although a Conservative-UKIP deal could have produced a majority, none appears to have been seriously pursued.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE was a hung three-party council from 1981 to 2005, with Lib Dems generally the largest group – before, in 2009, the Conservatives suddenly took 42 of the then 63 council seats. The reduction of 10 seats, accompanying boundary changes, and the prospect of at least some recovery by Labour and possibly the Lib Dems led close observers to predict a return to NOC, and they were right. The Conservatives, though, will continue in office as a minority administration, and the Lib Dems as the main opposition party, miffed reportedly at a suspected Con-Lab deal over Scrutiny Management and other committee chairs.

Meanwhile, the county’s badgers, temporarily reprieved last autumn from the Government’s planned cull, seem to have lobbied with some effect in the elections, the new council voting by 25 to 20 with 7 abstentions to oppose the cull, now due to start later this month.

In LANCASHIRE Labour either controlled the council or were the largest party from 1981 until 2009, and were hoping to regain majority control in one go. Sensing a lifeline, the Conservatives tried talking with anyone who might be interested in forming what would presumably be an anti-Labour coalition. But the Independents didn’t want an alliance with anyone and in the end the Lib Dems agreed to support a Labour minority administration – support that will include Labour’s budget, but not necessarily much more.

LINCOLNSHIRE Conservatives are unused to coalition politics, but the party’s leadership reacted quickly to the loss of nearly half its seats by negotiating a coalition deal with the Lib Dems and Independents, before the 16 new UKIP members could even elect themselves a leader. In the week they spent doing so, the party’s regional chairman pooh-poohed on their behalf any coalition with the Conservatives, and effectively condemned them to opposition from a starting point that might have yielded rather more. The Lincolnshire Independents group were also outsmarted – three of their number breaking away to join the coalition, one with a seat in the cabinet, with rumours that others could follow them into what is still a group-with-no-name.

Across The Wash, in equally traditionally Conservative NORFOLK, the outmanoeuvred group were the Conservatives themselves. At a full council meeting, the party’s re-elected leader, Bill Borrett, apparently thought he had an agreement with the Lib Dems at least to abstain in any vote, thereby enabling him to head a minority Conservative administration. He hadn’t, and nor was he able to nail down a more explicit coalition agreement with the Lib Dems involving some key specified posts. By far the largest group thus finds itself in opposition to a minority coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems based on just 29% of council members.

UKIP’s 15 votes were needed to get this deal off the ground – plus support from the Greens and an Independent – and the UKIP group describes itself as part of the coalition. That part, though, involves no cabinet seats, but rather the achievement of a Cambridgeshire-style agreement to abolish cabinet government and return to a committee system this time next year.

Before the Conservatives swept into power in 2005, OXFORDSHIRE had been a hung council for 20 years. Labour’s comeback was limited, and, on a now a significantly smaller council, the Conservatives finished within one seat of retaining their overall majority – a position they’ve restored thanks to a CIA: a Conservative/Independent Alliance probably less alarming than it initially sounds. No cabinet seats are involved, but three Independents have agreed to work with a Conservative minority administration in the kind of ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that many thought was as far as Cameron and Clegg would dare to go in 2010, and indeed to which they may still, before 2015, conceivably turn.

In WARWICKSHIRE Labour, though never the majority party, have regularly run the council as a minority and were hoping to regain this position. They didn’t, but they did do a deal with the Conservatives, the outcome being a Conservative minority administration, headed by the council’s first woman leader, Izzy Seccombe, with Labour holding the Scrutiny chairs, and the Lib Dems and Greens out in the cold, complaining of a stitch-up.

Now to the four hung unitaries. In BRISTOL Labour became again the largest single party and has agreed that two of its members should join Mayor George Ferguson’s all-party cabinet, which will now comprise 2 Labour members, 2 Lib Dems, I Conservative, and I Green. That may sound straightforward, but it most certainly wasn’t. Last November a similar proposal, though supported by Labour councillors, was overruled by the local party and eventually by the National Executive, and had cost the group its leader, Peter Hammond. It seems a sensible decision, but it would be surprising if that sentiment were shared universally within Labour circles.

In CORNWALL, as in Lincolnshire, some candidates continue running around long after the electoral music has stopped. Here, one of the elected Conservative members defected after 10 days to the Independents, bringing the latter group up to parity with the Lib Dems. This proved, though, less crucial than it might have, as both groups were already in discussions over some form of agreement – one possibility being an all- or multi-party rainbow alliance that could be presented to the public as a ‘Partnership for Cornwall’. What actually emerged was more mundane: an Independent/Lib Dem coalition with the more or less positive support of Labour, UKIP and Mebyon Kernow (the Party for Cornwall), the Conservatives having rejected as tokenism a scaled-back offer of two cabinet seats.

The ISLE OF WIGHT was once a Lib Dem showcase, controlled by the party either as a majority or in coalition for 16 years until 2005. It seems like history now, though, and this year’s election was largely about the exchange of seats between the Conservatives and Independents – the latter at least slightly helped by Labour and UKIP not contesting every seat that they might have done. The Island Independents, led by Ian Stephens, one of the possible beneficiaries of these arrangements, took over as easily the largest group, and will run the council as a minority administration – for the first time since 1973-77.

Having dominated the former county council, Labour will run unitary NORTHUMBERLAND for the first time as a minority administration, with the support of the three Independents – one of whom will be back as Chairman of Audit, the post she held as a Conservative councillor before resigning from the party following alleged victimisation by a senior colleague. And to think, there are some who say the local government world is boring.


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.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: is ‘Blue Labour’ part of the left response to the rise of UKIP?

Martin Stott

It is a commonplace for commentators to say that the recent success of UKIP in the shire elections poses a threat to Labour as well as the Tories. There is some truth in this, but a strand of thinking in the Labour Party has been grappling with some of the issues UKIP poses from a left perspective for several years. This is referred to as ‘Blue Labour’.

Essentially it is a critique of both Old and New Labour. It understands that the relentless progress of the last Labour Governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of government and is critical of its neo-liberal view of the world – globalisation understood entirely on terms set by finance capital. Instead it focuses on a different approach to socialism, stressing communitarianism, self reliance and mutuality.

The debate has been driven by the credibility of many of those leading it, most notably the Labour MP and Milliband’s policy review chief, John Cruddas and cultural studies professor, Jonathan Rutherford. They set out the Blue Labour stall thus:

“…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no one. It champions humanity in general but no one in particular. It favours multi-culturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific. Over the past decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion”.

A lot of people on the left can relate to that and the ‘Blue Labour’ argument is essentially that the loss by Labour of over five million votes between 1997 and 2010 is a reflection of this, encapsulated in Tony Blair’s famous 2004 comment “Leave the past to those who live in it”.

The problem with that mind-set is that this view of Labour supporters certainly does resonate with UKIP recruits from Labour. Recent focus groups of UKIP supporters when, after rehearsing a lengthy catalogue of things they didn’t like were asked what they did like about Britain, reportedly responded, ‘The past’. Cruddas’s summary of the trajectory of New Labour under Blair is:

“At its best New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s, early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end it embraced a dystopian destructive neo-liberalism cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour”.

What ‘Blue Labour’ is trying to articulate is a direction of travel that is different from a ‘progressive’ politics that uncritically embraces globalisation, neo-liberalism, consumerism and a market economy that leaves great swathes of the population behind and whose guiding principles were graphically exposed by the banking crisis of 2008.

By contrast, the current Government is a constant source of dismay to its supporters as it takes its admiration of all things ‘Blairite’ to new heights, with its attempts to flog off parts of English common life to the highest bidder, forests, waterways, parks, the Post Office, sport and culture, not to mention that national institution, the National Health Service. Hence the mass defections to UKIP from the Tories

By contrast ‘Blue Labour’ is attempting to create a polity through a set of values rooted in relationships – reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity and co-operation rather than the managerial, the bureaucratic and the corporate. It is not just a critique of New Labour though – Blue Labour is not that keen on Old Labour either.

As long ago as 1952, Richard Crossman in an article entitled “Towards a philosophy of Socialism” recognised that the post-war project, the creation of the Welfare State, the triumph of Fabianism, took for granted that politics was the business of maximising general happiness through social planning.

However a welfare state administered centrally in Whitehall sapped the life blood of the Labour Movement. “Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation”. Now (and this was in 1952!), it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had previously helped run municipal “gas and water socialism” were given “no vision of new socialist responsibilities”. ‘Blue Labour’ takes a similar view and indeed a deep scepticism of the Welfare State seems to be one of its defining features.

Navigating a credible path between a critique of the Welfare State, hostility to globalisation and neo-conservative economics, and a potentially reactionary nostalgia, is not easy. Labour’s traditions of solidarity, at their best, have been cross-class, cross-generational, cross-gender and cross-national. That is why the bust-ups over immigration prompted by the comments of the original exponent of ‘Blue Labour’ Maurice Glasman (enobled by Ed Miliband in 2011), hurt. It is also true that the ‘flag, faith and family’ tag has more than a hint of not just nationalism, but patriarchy. Some have denounced its perceived conservatism as a ‘Janet and John’ 1950’s style approach to family life. But the Labour Movement has a ‘tradition’ that embraces feminism, internationalism and more recently, multiculturalism. In this regard, ‘Blue Labour’ needs to be a lot more nuanced than current public perception of it.

It has also been criticised for having no coherent economic policy. Certainly talk of limiting the market, bemoaning the “commodification of human beings” and the promotion of regional banks and ‘city parliaments’, doesn’t constitute an economic policy. But unlike the “Big Society”, a shameless Tory ‘borrowing’ of the narratives of community and mutuality, ‘Blue Labour’ is not utterly silent on the market.

Whatever we think of the specific prescriptions that have emerged so far, what we are seeing with ‘Blue Labour’ is a return of something that was repressed under New Labour. Labour is once more talking about class and ideology and from that, some constructive new thinking and a credible response to the UKIP threat, should emerge.


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.

Thursday’s local elections: Catzilla and the county councils

Chris Game

I really wish sometimes – OK, occasionally – that I still did my British Government undergraduate lectures. This would be revision season, with lectures atypically well attended, by previously unseen students hoping for hints about exam questions. And there’d be the local elections, and the opportunity to point out once more that, as students, many of them could not only register twice, at home and at their term-time address, but also in these elections vote twice – and try to persuade them to do both at least once.

It’s not easy. Post-election opinion polls tell us that in the 2010 General Election, for example, 56% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote, compared to 35% of all electors and only 24% of over-65s. They don’t usually tell us, though, that most of those 56% couldn’t vote, because they weren’t even registered. The Electoral Commission can, though, and their statistics on the inaccuracy of electoral registers are alarming. Using known population growth rates, the Commission reckoned the April 2011 registers, showing an electorate of around 45 million, were 15% inaccurate, that at least 6 million people in GB were unregistered, and among 17-24 year olds the non-registration rate was 44%.

The Commission runs regular campaigns to promote registration, this year’s being clearly aimed at these elusive young people. I’m not sure about its effectiveness, but I’d certainly use it, and I can recall few visual aids of whose student appeal I would be more confident. ItsYourVote is a website whose home page comprises a satellite image of the UK, and a warning that “Without a vote, you have no say in what happens in your local area”. To learn what fearful fate that might be, you enter your postcode, whereupon the satellite homes in and you discover that, should you fail to register, “come election time, you may as well be vaporised by Catzilla’s rainbow laser eyes”, or possibly seized by a massive disco fairground grabber, or swept up by a giant ice cream scoop.

Source: ItsYourVote

The Daily Mail thinks the website “absurd” and an appalling waste of public money. But I fear it misses the subtlety. While obviously the ice cream scoop is a bit silly, you can see that Catzilla, though provoked by the under-registration of Birmingham University students, has been impressively selective in his vaporisation of our Edgbaston campus – wiping out the Law faculty and the entire University administration, but leaving untouched, for instance, the Muirhead Tower and my civic-savvy, fully registered INLOGOV colleagues.

As it happens, the Commission’s efforts would be wasted on most of our students this year, for, as noted in my elections preview blog, this is the one year in four when the metropolitan boroughs like Birmingham, along with most unitary authorities and shire districts, don’t elect any of their councillors. This leaves just 37 councils in England plus one in Wales holding any kind of local elections this week, and, with that first blog having at least briefly covered those in the 8 unitaries and the mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside, the remainder of this one will focus on the 27 county councils.

They were previously elected in 2009, when Labour’s standing in the opinion polls was desperate – 16% behind the Conservatives, at 23% to 39%, with the Liberal Democrats on 19%. Reflecting those figures, the Conservatives, the dominant party anyway in this tier of local government, won nearly nine times as many seats as Labour – 1,261 to 145, with the Lib Dems taking 346 – and took majority control of every one of the 27 councils except Cumbria, where they became the leading party in a Conservative/Labour/Independent coalition.

2009 is therefore the baseline against which to assess the prospects and eventual performance of the various political parties, whose standings in the polls today are, of course, dramatically different. In this week’s Sunday Times YouGov poll, Labour have a 9% lead (40% to 31%) over the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems and UK Independence Party (UKIP) level on 11%, and the Greens on 3%. These figures indicate a Conservative –> Labour swing of nearly 13% since 2009, and no swing at all between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. It’s a blunt measure, but about the best we have for assessing the electoral chances of the major parties.

In the same poll, incidentally, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, gets a higher rating as a party leader – 44% saying he’s doing a good job – than Cameron (36%), Ed Miliband (29%), or Nick Clegg (21%). Partly because of headlineable findings like these, and partly because they are a real, but unpredictable, threat to all parties in these elections, UKIP have, as Karin Bottom noted last week, been attracting the bulk of media attention. In terms of seats, though not councils, gained, they will undoubtedly be among Friday’s winners – indeed, it’s about the one knowable thing about them – but mainly because they’ve virtually nothing to lose.

UKIP like boasting of their “army of councillors sitting on borough, town, county and parish councils across the UK”. This army, though, would make Gideon’s little band of soldiers that took on the Midianites seem like a legion. In fact, its massed ranks contain just over 100 town and parish councillors (out of 75,000) and about 30 on principal authorities – including 11 (out of 1,800+) on county councils. And there’s a similar economy with the truth in its manifesto claim that “where UKIP is in charge of local government, we use that power to cut costs … we believe that council taxes should go down, not up”. Back on Earth, the only local government of which UKIP has ever had charge is Ramsey Town Council in Huntingdonshire, Cambs., and since taking ‘power’ in 2011 they have ‘slashed’ the council tax precept by +28%, from £42.56 on Band D to £54.61 in 2012-13.

Council tax rates are, quite properly, a big issue in these elections, but hardly a straightforward one. First, Coalition Government ministers have from the outset done their utmost to set – that is, freeze – all councils’ tax and spending totals themselves, by bribing them with limited and potentially disadvantageous freeze grants. Second, it is the districts, not the county councils being elected this week, who are the billing authorities who will have sent out the bills and be trying to collect the taxes, even though it’s the counties who do about 90% of the actual spending.

Third, this year, although almost all counties obediently accepted their one-off grant deals and froze their tax precepts, well over a third of the districts refused them and raised their tax bills – more than half of whom were Conservative-controlled. So, does a voter in one of these ‘naughty’ districts, urged by David Cameron to vote Conservative for lower council taxes, punish the council that raised its tax or reward the county that didn’t?

It’s nothing like as simple as, for instance, street-lighting. It’s not, perhaps surprisingly, a statutory obligation for any council, but, if your street lights are being dimmed or switched off in the interests of economy, it’s almost certainly the county who control the photo-electric timers. So, either way, if you approve of the cost and carbon savings, or disapprove of jeopardising safety and security, you know how to vote.

So how many of the 27 counties, all Conservative today, will be differently controlled come Friday? In Cumbria, the one that half got away in 2009, Labour in recent years has usually had a plurality, if rarely a majority, and will be looking to regain that position of largest single party. However, a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was elected in November, and, as elsewhere, Ed Miliband’s claim to be “fighting for every vote” is undermined by the party fielding 14 fewer candidates than in 2009, while Greens are up from 15 to 31, UKIP from 4 to 52, and, in another sign of the times, the British National Party (BNP) down from 41 to 9.

While becoming largest party may be fine in Cumbria, in the four councils Labour held virtually uninterruptedly from 1981 until 2005, anything short of winning back majority control will surely count as failure. Derbyshire was numerically the Conservatives’ narrowest capture, with 33 of the council’s 64 seats, and they have already lost that overall majority, with one councillor having to resign for unsavoury personal reasons and another switching allegiance to UKIP. Even a modest swing should do. Nottinghamshire is much trickier, for in 2009 Labour lost seats variously to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, UKIP (in Ashfield), and assorted Independents, especially in Mansfield. A straight swing of even 10% from the Conservatives might not be enough, but a repeat of those with which they won by-elections in Worksop and Rufford certainly would. In Lancashire too Labour need almost to reverse the trouncing they suffered at the hands of all parties, including the Greens and BNP. A 5% swing from the Lib Dems in Burnley, where they have already won back one seat in a by-election, and a 10% swing from the Conservatives elsewhere should do it – even without ousting the notoriously independent Idle Toad, Tom Sharratt, from his South Ribble fastness.

If Lancashire was a trouncing, Staffordshire was a bloodbath, from which Labour crawled out with just 3 of its former 32 seats. With nearly two-thirds of divisional boundaries having been changed, it is difficult even to assess the scale of the task of regaining majority control from such a tiny base, the most promising guide being perhaps the results in the three districts that held elections last year. In both Cannock Chase and Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour took majority control of the council by gaining a total of 15 seats from the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and in Newcastle also from UKIP. In Tamworth too they won seats from the Conservatives, and across the three councils there was an average Conservative –> Labour swing since 2009 of 14%, which, repeated on Thursday, would indeed have been sufficient, without boundary changes, for Labour to reverse the horrors of 2009. In November, on the other hand, the electorate – or a very small portion of them – preferred a Conservative PCC.

Had the Lib Dems gone into opposition in 2010, rather than national coalition, they too would be aiming to regain the councils they lost in 2009: Somerset, Devon and, although it became a single-county unitary at the same time, Cornwall. But two years of depressing opinion polls and local election results are taking their toll, and Devon, for example, seems to be one of several counties in which UKIP candidates will outnumber Lib Dems. Indeed, Ilfracombe, in Lib Dem hands for years, appears to be being surrendered without even a defence.

Somerset, where almost all contests are between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and the latter were in majority control for most of the period between 1993 and 2009, is a much stronger prospect. Again, extensive boundary changes make projections difficult, but even a 5% Conservative –> Lib Dem swing on existing boundaries would be enough for the Lib Dems to regain control. But, as noted above, there’s been no perceptible swing at all, and the easy victory of an Independent in the Avon & Somerset PCC election may suggest that this is particularly promising territory for independents and smaller parties.

As for the rest, it might seem that in these uncertain times, if a case can be made for Staffordshire being recoverable by Labour from a councillor base of three, almost anything is possible. Well, yes – but realistically, even a really good result for Labour would probably be limited to depriving the Conservatives of their overall control in a few more councils. One could be Warwickshire, which, as a minority administration Labour have run for longer in recent years than have the Conservatives, and another Northamptonshire, one of apparently a small handful who are all claiming to have “the lowest council tax set by any of the 27 shire counties in England”.

Clearly they can’t all be right, and, this being an academic blog, I feel it’s appropriately pedantic to close by citing the relevant House of Commons note reporting that Northamptonshire’s Band D equivalent precept of £1,028.11 is in fact only third lowest, behind Staffordshire (£1,027.25) and Somerset (£1,027.30).


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.

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.


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.