The paradoxical nature of being successful

Ian Briggs

The world of social science can be an odd place at times. Much is quite rightly being made of the impact of severe reductions in public spending, but when social scientists look at the levels of satisfaction with public services, many see the general quality of services remaining high.

This seeming anomaly can seem even more confusing when we start to look at the tactical moves made by public institutions and bodies to place themselves within a market-based approach to service provision. For those in the private sector demand stimulation is a core activity. Seeking growth, market penetration and improving competitiveness are very much at the heart of sound management and leadership. But for the public sector the issue of demand brings with it issues of access criteria, rationing and strategies o deflect demand away from the most pressurised services.

The rise of strategic commissioning has been for many the key mechanism to deal with market-based approaches to service provision – this brings with it tactics that seek to make public services more attractive to market-based provision, stimulating provision rather than stimulating demand. Indeed, there are growing numbers of examples where through taking a market-based approach to provision, citizens are readily accepting that services are commissioned by public bodies but actually provided by private and third sector organisations.

Consequently, if satisfaction and contentment remain high (though it has to be accepted that is not in any way universal), why should we worry?

Having happy and content consumers for a commercial organisation is indeed something to be very highly valued and the same should be true for our public services. However, there is a sting in the tail. There are an increasing number of examples of what we can refer to as ‘needs acceleration’ – if you satisfy a demand for a good or a service then over time it brings with it an appetite for yet more. This is a phenomena that is well understood in many consumer markets; once you have provided a good product the time will come when it needs replacing and the consumer expectation is that it will bring with it an advancement in quality and increased utility.

For local councillors, the expenditure of monies on local improvements can bring with it both satisfaction and a feeling that if an improvement is made in one area then another must be close behind. This is ‘needs acceleration’ – if you can make one thing better then why can you not deal with another perceived problem? For many in local communities the history of planning gain through section 106 agreements often leads to a paradox – this is now being keenly felt with severe budget reductions.

An example of this is where developers have brought improved local facilities such as play areas with housing developments, over time the asset investment cost is overtaken by revenue costs to keep the facilities in good order. Over ten years a play area that cost £60k to build and install can bring with it equal levels of cost to ensure that it is maintained and operated to an acceptable standard. This impact of ongoing revenue costs over capital costs is an issue that is at times challenging to get across to communities who seek improvements in civic amenities but remain unaware of the longer term implications of meeting revenue expenditure obligations.

The same can be said for where we have schools that are judged to be of high calibre. This brings with it the perceived advantage of higher property values and greater pressure for development. A local school with strong OFSTEAD reports is attractive for a developer seeking to build new properties on adjacent land. For the developer the housing mix is determined by national regulation though it is clearly in the interests of the developer to build houses that are saleable and attractive to potential customers who seek to have a place in a good school for their children. Given that any new development brings with it obligations under section 106 or the CIL, the local community has the right to expect that local facilities and infrastructure improvements will follow – though, again, the actual benefit may be relatively short term. Although the open spaces and free public access facilities that come with new housing development are to be welcome and indeed seen as a necessity, over time the costs of maintaining such improvements will have to be met from somewhere. This cost can and does often fall on the local community, increasing pressure on expenditure in future years, at a level that can be difficult to calculate.

This, however, cannot be an argument for mediocrity. We need development; any community that does not seek to improve is failing in its civic duty – though we may be facing too many problems in years to come by taking a short term view of civic performance. For many councillors, the pressure to create physical improvements to a place is huge; though if we concentrate too much on the immediate future at the expense of the longer term we can see that some of our public services will fall into neglect, especially as the cost of maintaining those services and facilities increases over time.

A question that often arises in our teaching and research on the issue of strategic commissioning is what it is exactly that make strategic commissioning strategic. The answer may lie in the balancing of meeting immediate need with longer term vision – too often commissioners are faced with commissioning for the here and now and fail to see that we have to make all provision sustainable; poor short term commissioning may meet immediate needs but fail to take into account where service need will be in years to come. Most councils are willing to admit that they struggle with the very idea of having a commissioning strategic – they can see the need for it but commissioning for future needs is something that can be driven out as today’s agenda is about meeting known needs today.

Commercial organisations have at their fingertips different strategies that are perhaps unavailable to us – they can offer differentiated products and services where premium products and services can be delivered alongside standard ones. The premium charges cover the cost of research and development and the cost of the premium in the first place.

What remains is that whilst there may be growing evidence that some people are generally satisfied with what is provided in a period of austerity and service diminution, the actual demand for services does not actually decrease. We offer an increasing number of potential substitutes and alternatives, but where we make improvements or update facilities and services within the mind of the public it can and does bring an expectation of more.


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Can Gov 2.0 transform Local Government?

Tom Barrance

Is there an appetite for more change in local government? In particular change that could challenge local council’s traditional relationships with the public, and how Councils conduct their business?

Drawing inspiration from the revolutionary changes enabled by the development of the collaborative web (web2.0) in the worlds of retail and peer to peer networking, a number of technologists and democrats have sought to harness the power of technology to make government better and democracy stronger by leveraging the power of citizens. Can Gov2.0 live up to the hype and deliver real transformation to local government in the UK; and will government open the door to these changes?

The Gov2.0 vision of an improved council is drawn from the underlying belief that more citizen choice and participation is a good thing, and that for this to happen citizens need access to information (open and transparent government). This vision runs contrary to James Madison’s view, which has dominated the structure of modern liberal democracy, that the election of representatives serves to refine and enhance the public debate. Rather it is argued that the representative system serves to undermine public understanding of the issues in favour of the party platform and sound bite politics. A lack of public information serves to obscure “true” organisational activity and behaviour, allowing waste to go unchallenged.

The harnessing of technology and of collaborative networks  makes access to large amounts of information, and open public debate possible; but also opens the door to another significant area of change, the use of publicly available information to develop and deliver services independently. Examples of this can be seen in the City of New York 311 apps competition, with applications based on public data delivering public services ranging from advice to urban poultry farmers to city emergency planning. These are not City services, rather community services facilitated by publication of public data. The development of community based services hosted and facilitated by local government shifts the Council to a position of being a platform provider, not just a service provider.

Making use of collaborative technology is not an untested idea in the arena of public policy. The use of social media in the reform of the Icelandic constitution in 2012 shows how people can engage and be part of a topic that would otherwise be restricted to the chosen few. More views and opinions produce better policies. Contrary to this, it may be argued that the public neither know enough, nor care enough about the day-to-day functioning of local government services, that they will not understand the technical details sufficiently to make decisions. Ignoring for now the patronising nature of these arguments that suggest that engagement in the process requires training and should therefore be restricted to a technocracy, the nature of mass involvement is that the question at hand is viewed from a diversity of perspectives, rather than just the limited perspective of the expert and elected representative.

The notion of a transformational change represents an appeal to a grand narrative of perfection. Transformation is an idea that is underscored by a belief that change will result in something which is “better” than before. This belief in a singular “better” future has driven the recent history of changes in the structure and organisation of local government. Rarely, however, do changes proposed seek to harness the citizen, rather than altering the organisational structure. That is perhaps the major difference between Gov2.0 and its predecessors such as New Public Management. Rather than being an appeal to the notion of singular perfection, Gov2.0 is an appeal via the citizen, to the bespoke – community government made by the public for the locality.

Gov2.0 is a set of ideas, which if implemented have the  power and the potential to transform the relationship between local government and those it serves, it can open up the development of policy and services to a wider audience, and allow the sunlight of transparency to shine in areas that have been hidden in the shadows. If the political will exists then Gov2.0 can make local government everybody’s business, not just the preserve of a chosen few.

tom b

Tom Barrance is a part time Doctoral Researcher looking at Gov 2.0 in UK Local Government, and full time Business Analyst/Project Manager at the London Borough of Hackney. He has worked in the public sector for the past 13 years, at a number of different local councils in a range of roles in Economic Development, business change and delivering ICT solutions.

The role of the third sector in delivering public services: what we know and what we’d like to know

James Rees

Inlogov and TSRC recently held a stimulating and well attended seminar involving guests from University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a great opportunity to share knowledge on the role of third sector organisations in public services, and to compare the ways in which there are similarities facing TSOs in both the US and UK.

But as so often it begged many questions as well and I want to reflect a bit on both the state of what we know and what we ought to know about the third sector’s role in delivering public services (in the UK!).

When I talk to people about the research that I do, the usual response is “what on earth is the third sector?” followed by “do they really deliver public services?” I’ll come back to the first question but the second is certainly very interesting.

There is a very long history to the involvement of what we now call the third sector in meeting welfare needs and providing services. Many are aware of early charitable and philanthropic action in the 19th century (Barnardo’s, RNIB and RSPCA for example); there was an explosion of mutual, co-operative and associations in the early industrial period; and before the dawn of the welfare state many health services were provided in voluntary hospitals that worked in partnership with local government.

Pete Alcock pointed out how these forms of the third sector had waxed and waned in response to political and economic change, leading right up to the 1980s Conservative interest in the third sector as alternative providers, the influence of New Public Management, and New Labour’s commitment to ‘partnership’ with the sector, written into a Compact.

In my discussion I suggested that it was useful to look at different levels or ‘strata’ of the third sector in relation to service delivery.

There are the big national charities (for example Barnardo’s, NSPCC, RNIB and the Salvation Army). It’s probably fair to say that the public perceive that these organisations rely on donations and fundraising, but they also hold very significant contracts to deliver services. For example Barnardo’s and Family Action run ‘Sure Start’ Childrens Centres. Action for Blind People, part of the RNIB Group, deliver a number of publically funded services to people with sight loss including schools, supported housing, and tailored health services within the NHS. This of course is only a tiny snapshot of what is by far the most visible part of the sector.

All of the mentioned organisations, and many more of varying sizes, large, medium and tiny, are involved in the Government’s controversial Work Programme, which aims to help benefit recipients into sustained employment. Our recent research drew attention to the difficulties charities were facing in terms of the strictures of the payments system, the lack of resources, and the prevalence of perverse ‘creaming and parking’ behaviour.

The work programme experience shows how public service delivery can be controversial and risky for charities, both financially and reputationally. But the costs are balanced by the opportunities contracts provide for charities to lobby government (where involvement can equal ‘insider status’ and credibility); and many charities argue it is consistent with their mission to bring their expertise to bear to improve services for their own client groups.

In my view there is a ‘missing middle’ as far the third sector and its role in public services is concerned. Missing only in the sense that we know less about it and there is a huge variety of experience so it is difficult to make generalisations about what is happening at this level.

Many organisations are much smaller than the ones mentioned above and tend to operate at the level of a region like the north-west, across a small number of local authorities, or even within a neighbourhood. They might have contracts with a local authority or a PCT (soon to be a CCG), and this part of the sector delivers a bewildering range of services.

We have been studying just these sorts of organisations as part of current research into public sector commissioning of the third sector. I have been struck firstly by the immense variety exhibited by organisations at this level, in terms of the types of services that they provide, their size and scope of operation, and seeming difference in their ethos, culture and degree of professionalism.

Secondly I have been struck by how vulnerable some seem to apparent threats in the current environment, most obviously loss of existing contracts and grants as a result of (mainly local authority) cuts, but also the possibility of competition from other TSOs and private sector organisations, and a wider sense of uncertainty, verging on fear.

Perhaps in some sense this is par for the course for the sector, and no organisation has a special right to exist. But I do wonder if we fully understand and value what might be lost if we start to lose these organisations in any great number, as they undoubtedly play an important role for many communities and individuals.

Finally, TSRC has done a great deal of research on organisations ‘below the radar’. Arguably again little is really known about how grassroots groups might interact with public services, enhance them, or what impact austerity might have on this vast ‘ecosystem’ of organisations. Much the same can be said about the important role of volunteers in public services. At the same time there is growing interest in how small community groups can be part of the co-production of public services.

Back to that first question: what on earth is the third sector? As soon as we start talking about different levels of the third sector, the huge diversity it contains, and the porous boundaries between in this case the grassroots and community sector, it begs the question of why we use the label ‘the third sector’. Are we dealing with a sector at all?

In an esoteric but influential paper in 1997, Perri 6 and Diana Leat argued forcefully that the sector had been ‘invented by committee’, in other words it was a social construction that suited the interests of some key political interests and society might have been better off without this invented sector and an obsession with the ‘politics of organizational form’. Pete Alcock takes a softer line, suggesting that the sector is held together in a ‘strategic unity’ in which tensions and disparities are sometimes played down in order strengthen the sector’s hand in negotiations with the state. These might seem like questions designed to keep academics in jobs, but it is interesting that people in the sector seem to keep asking similar ones as well: what makes our sector distinctive? What are our unique values and ways of working?

The seminar was interesting because even in the short amount of time we had available participants began to pose some really hard questions for academic research. I hope we can return to many of these:

  • What is the ‘right’ role for the state in providing public services?
  • Is the third sector just a foil for ongoing privatisation of the public sector and wider public realm?
  • Is the third sector doomed to be under-resourced, vulnerable and ‘under-professionalised’? Or can innovations like social finance and social impact bonds make a revolutionary difference?


James Rees is a Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham. His recent research concentrates on transformations in UK public services including the role of the third sector, but his longer term interests have been in the governance of urban and regional governance, with a particular focus on the politics of city-regionalism; critical perspectives on urban housing market restructuring and housing policy; and more broadly on issues in urban regeneration, neighbourhoods and community. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesrees_tsrc.

Conservative and Labour council tax claims: both right, and both deceptive

Chris Game

It used to be a toss-up which would come first: the political parties launching their local election campaigns or the letter in The Times claiming its author has heard the first cuckoo of Spring. Sadly, with the cuckoo’s drastically declining population both here and worldwide, it’s the politicians that usually win these days, but perhaps it’s some kind of compensation that they can generally be relied upon to produce some distinctly cuckoo-like behaviour – as in daftness, rather than parasitism.

David Cameron chose Nuneaton in Warwickshire for his launch of the Conservatives’ campaign, which electorally certainly made sense. With the most non-Conservative areas in several traditional counties having become unitaries, Warwickshire is one of the few genuinely marginal counties around, with the Conservatives maybe having the edge in votes, but Labour having run the county council for longer in recent years as a minority administration. Come to the West Midlands in April, though, and you have to confront the Aston Villa relegation issue. Cameron was “sure it’ll be alright in the end”, which in the circumstances, and especially as he was careful not to define “end”, was also not daft. Some of his other views, though, did seem to suggest that he might have just migrated in from Africa.

The Government’s Localism Act had empowered local government, he asserted, so local elections now mattered more than in the past …We’ve given councils much, much more freedom …”. It was the double emphasis that took the biscuit. It must be really, really difficult for most councils, having seen their grant funding slashed year by year, and having just implemented their fourth round of spending cuts to meet budget and tax ceilings effectively dictated by the Government, to identify quite where all this freedom and electoral meaningfulness are hiding.

However, it’s not the function of an INLOGOV blog to engage in partisan knockabout – no, really, it’s not. This one’s serious purpose is to try to inject a bit of factual clarification into what looks like becoming a pretty heated debate about council tax – a little ironically, talking of electoral meaningfulness, when very few of the councils holding elections are actually billing authorities.

In neighbouring Worcestershire, for instance, should electors in Bromsgrove and Malvern Hills vote as if to punish their tax-collecting Conservative councils for rejecting Cameron and Pickles’ “clear moral imperative” to freeze their council taxes for the sake of “hard-working families and pensioners”? That presumably would be a demonstration that local elections mattered. Or should they reward Conservative Worcestershire for taking the Government’s one-off grant (equivalent to a one per cent rise in council tax) and freezing the much bigger portion of their tax bill?

It’s a definite complication for the Conservatives, who would have liked to be able to contrast phalanxes of blue councils, which had obediently taken the grant and frozen their tax bills for a further year, with loads of red and orange/yellow ones that had ignored their “moral imperative” and increased theirs. There was no lack of ministerial arm-twisting (proverbial, I presume) and other threats and pressures to which Conservative council leaders were subjected, but at the end of the day, as the Sunday Telegraph was one of the first to document, the figures just didn’t turn out right.

In a mid-March survey of all 353 English councils, the Telegraph found first that a total of 124, or more than a third, were increasing their council tax bills as a way of raising revenue. Secondly, more than half of these offending councils (64) were Conservative – that’s more than one in three of those the party currently controls. Some, moreover – as can be confirmed in a more recent House of Commons briefing paper (Appendix 7) – were seriously big and embarrassing names.

The three tax-raising counties were almost bound to be Conservative, and indeed are – Cambridgeshire, Surrey, and a particularly interesting A N Other. The six London boroughs were more mixed. There were 2 of Labour’s 18 – Lewisham and Harrow; 1 of the Lib Dems’ 2 – Kingston-upon-Thames; and 3 of the Conservatives’ 11 – Bromley, Croydon, and, with the biggest increase of all at over 3%, Wandsworth. As for A N Other, the Sunday Telegraph seemed almost salivatingly pleased to note that the Tory miscreants “included Oxfordshire County Council, which is David Cameron’s local authority, and Runnymede Council in the constituency of Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary.”

None of this, of course, is going to stop the Conservatives exhorting us in virtually every campaign speech to vote Conservative for lower council taxes. But listen carefully to what they actually say, like Cameron himself on Friday: “On average, on a Band D bill, Conservative councils continue to charge lower levels of council taxes than Labour or Lib Dems.” And it’s perfectly true. It generally is. And, unless you stop and think about it for a few moments longer than most voters are probably likely to give it, it’s seriously misleading.

As, in a very similar way, is Labour’s counter-claim that we should vote for them, because, to quote Hilary Benn, Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government, from last year’s election campaign and no doubt from this year’s as well: “Households in Labour-controlled authorities pay on average less council tax per year than those in Tory and Lib Dem areas”.

Note the small, but hugely significant, difference: Conservatives: average Band D; Labour: average per household/dwelling. If I were preparing students for an exam, I might suggest they use a mnemonic – say, Bullingdon and Downing Street for Band D – but I’d also try to get them to think it through, because it’s really not brain-hurting stuff.

The tax base for council tax is a ratio system based on 8 valuation bands, centred around Band D (properties valued, in 1991, at ₤68,000 to ₤88,000). Band A properties (under ₤40,000) pay 6/9 (2/3) of Band D; Band B 7/9, and so on up to Band H (over ₤320,000) paying 18/9 (2x) of Band D. Councils calculate their tax base by weighting the number of dwellings in each band to Band D, and report their budget headlines in terms of ‘Council tax for council services (Band D)’.

Band D has thus become a benchmark for comparative purposes, and it is perfectly reasonable for the Conservatives to use it – reasonable but disingenuous. Not so much because only a small minority of properties (15% in England) are actually in Band D, but because, exacerbated by the absence of any revaluation since 1991, the mix of property bands across authorities and regions nowadays varies starkly. In my own authority of Birmingham 66% of properties are in Bands A and B, and just 8% in E to H combined. Neighbouring Solihull has 29% in Bands A and B, and also 29% in E to H. In the North East there are 55% Band As, in the South East 9%, in London 3.6%.

All of which obviously means that, to raise any particular sum of money in an authority with mainly Band A to C properties requires a higher Band D tax than in one comprising many E to H properties. The average bills paid per household will vary similarly – being generally higher than the Band D figure in more affluent and Conservative-inclined areas, and lower in less affluent or Labour-inclined ones. Hence Labour’s equally disingenuous preference for average tax bill figures. Two contrasting Inner London boroughs provide an illustration. Kensington and Chelsea: Band D – £1,086; average tax per dwelling – £1,190; Tower Hamlets: Band D – £1,189; average tax per dwelling – £787.

The parties have been playing this rather irritating game seemingly forever, and at one time it fell to party researchers or friendly academics to have to ascertain councils’ political control, decide whether it had been long enough to influence budgetary and tax policy, and produce the necessary statistics. In recent years, possibly irritated at hearing the same arguments repeated year after year, the estimable House of Commons Library staff (and notably Matthew Keep) have taken over, and a table on page 9 of the research briefing referred to above and reproduced here enable us, and, if they choose, MPs to compare the figures for ourselves.

game table apr 22

They show that, in all comparisons in which more than 5 authorities are involved, the average band D council tax is lower in Conservative-controlled authorities than in those controlled by Labour, the single exception being Police and Crime Commissioners, where the lower levels were set by Labour. But in all cases the average council tax per dwelling is lower in Labour-controlled authorities. It’s difficult to say just what, if anything, this proves, but it surely means that we need hear no more of these particular claims. In your dreams!


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.

The 2013 local elections – a preview and protest

Over the next two weeks, the INLOGOV blog will be featuring a range of posts related to the local elections. Check the blog regularly for all the expert commentary, and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date.

Chris Game

There’s a view – shared by, among others, the Electoral Commission, the members of the 2007 Councillors Commission, and me – that voters’ lives would be easier and their turnout at least a smidgeon higher, if the 4-year cycle of local elections were uniform across the whole of England, and based on all-out or ‘whole council’ elections for all councils being held on the same ‘Local Elections Day’ (LED).

There could be one LED either every four years, or, if it were felt preferable, every other year: with LED1 being for voters to elect members of their ‘most immediate’ councils – districts, unitaries, London and metropolitan boroughs – and LED2 for those in two-tier areas to elect their county councils and the London Assembly. Neither LED would coincide and be forced to share the stage with a General or European Parliament election.

There would be several benefits. The election campaign, both by the political parties and in the media, would have to give greater attention than at present to local government issues and the performance of local councils and councillors, which should in turn raise the public’s awareness and understanding, and in some their inclination to vote.

Just as importantly, all voters in the same type of local authority would have the same number of opportunities to elect their councillors, and, even if they chose not to use those votes, they’d at least know each year whether they had a vote not to use. At present, voters in a district that elects its council by thirds, with elections in three years out of four, can have three times the number of voting opportunities as those in a neighbouring district with all-out elections. There seems, to me at least, something seriously unbalanced about a system of local democracy in which ministers think uniform frequency should apply to bin collection but not to voting opportunity.

End of protest (well, nearly), and time to look at what will be happening where on Thursday 2nd May. For this is the first in a short series of blogs by INLOGOV colleagues over the next fortnight or so on different aspects of this year’s local elections, and so will endeavour to set the scene. Which, in truth, really shouldn’t take that long, because there can rarely have been a local election year involving fewer local authorities.

Indeed, it takes almost as long to explain why this is, but, since it illustrates my case about the system’s pointless complexity, I’m afraid I’m going to – though I’ll let you off with England only. It has to do with the (usually) 4-year election cycles referred to above, in which 2009, 2013 and 2017 can be seen as the 4th years. In Year 1 – 2010, 2014 – we have elections for the met boroughs, who have to elect their councils by thirds; for the roughly one-third of unitary and shire district councils who have chosen to; for the London boroughs, who are required to have all-out elections; plus a few elected mayors. About 160 authorities involved in total.

Year 2 – 2011, 2015 – is the big year, when the national media have a better excuse than usual for pretending that local government is staging a mini-General Election for their benefit. We have the mets, all districts (even those choosing all-out elections can’t choose the year), most but not all unitaries (don’t ask – I told you it was designed to baffle), and a few more mayors. About 280 authorities in all. Year 3 should be a near-repeat of Year 1, with Londoners electing the Mayor and Assembly, instead of borough councils, plus, from 2016 and assuming they still exist, Police and Crime Commissioners.

And so we come to this year, Year 4, in which we have just the 27 remaining county councils, a few all-out unitaries, a couple of mayors, and a stray from Wales. And that’s it – not just in England, but in the whole UK. Which sounds as if it might represent something of a let-off for any party struggling in the opinion polls – but in this case it almost certainly doesn’t.

Although I do have, I promise you, several more artistic offerings on my office walls, on the door there hangs – courtesy of the Local Government Chronicle and the incomparable local elections experts, Professors Rallings and Thrasher – a poster mapping the political control of all GB councils. An inset map on the poster focuses solely on the county councils, and it seemed a good place to start.

game map apr 13

Ignoring the added symbols for the moment, this potentially multi-coloured map comprised, when it was produced at the start of the current political year, just the one colour – blue for Conservative majority control – and some white spaces. The latter, moreover, actually dilute the true extent of one-party domination among these big, upper-tier councils which, it should be remembered, are responsible for roughly 90% of local government revenue spending in their respective areas, compared to the 10% contributed by the 201 lower-tier districts. For, with one exception, the apparently blank spaces are not non-Conservative controlled counties, but single-tier metropolitan and unitary authorities. That exception, the one county where in May 2009 the Conservatives didn’t take majority control, is Cumbria, where they are comfortably the largest party but lead an interesting power-sharing administration of Conservatives, Labour and an Independent, with the Lib Dems in official opposition.

There is in fact now a second exception in Derbyshire. Labour-dominated since 1981, it was numerically the Conservatives’ narrowest capture in 2009, with 33 of the council’s 64 seats. In the past few months, though, they have lost that overall majority, with one councillor having to resign for unsavoury personal reasons and another switching allegiance to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Not the best position from which to enter what was always bound to be an uphill battle to retain control.

Those 2009 elections took place when Labour’s standing nationally was about as low as it could get. The Government was in disarray, there were leadership plots against Gordon Brown, some ministers were in trouble over their expenses, others were resigning like proverbial rats from an apparently sinking ship – and that was in the week before the elections. In the pre-election opinion polls the Conservatives were 16 points ahead: 39% to Labour’s 23% and the Lib Dems’ 19%. As they generally do, the election results reflected the polls, and the Conservatives, already the dominant party in this tier of local government, gained blanket control by taking Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire from Labour, Warwickshire from Labour minority control, and Devon and Somerset from the Lib Dems.

Today, the voting intention opinion polls are not quite as bad for the Conservatives as they were in 2009 for Labour, but they’re hardly encouraging. They show the Conservatives trailing Labour by about 11 points, with 30% to 41%, while their Lib Dem coalition partners are battling it out with UKIP on around 12%. I’ll be looking in more detail in a later blog at what these national standings and other considerations signal for actual changes in control among the counties, but I want to conclude this preview by mentioning the other elections that are taking place.

The added stars on the map identify the 8 unitary authorities holding elections. Five are from the most recent generation of unitaries and were until 2009 upper-tier county councils in the two-tier part of the structure. Their extraordinary scale – for what is the supposedly ‘local’ government in their areas – earns them the biggest stars on the map. Two – Shropshire and Wiltshire – are currently solidly blue for majority Conservative control, and Durham is equally solidly Labour. Labour also controlled neighbouring Northumberland for its last ten years as a county council, and must hope at least to regain its position as largest party and end the present minority Lib Dem administration. Cornwall’s last years as a county council were spent under majority Lib Dem control, but the Conservatives now lead a coalition administration with the Independents and may have their sights set on the overall majority that they’ve never so far achieved.

The Isle of Wight was also a county council until 1995 and also in its final years controlled by the Lib Dems. The party today, though, is reduced to just four councillors, and it is the Conservatives who have a majority. Bristol, even by UK standards, is an electoral oddity. The Council voted recently – to the relief of pretty well all concerned – to switch from election by thirds to all-out elections, coinciding with the election of the city’s mayor. But not, sadly, until 2016, which means that, for barely comprehensible reasons, it is the single authority this year to be electing only a third of its council. This necessarily restricts the scope for change, but there could still be sufficient for the Lib Dems to lose their minority control and for Labour to regain its position as largest single party.

All of which leaves just the odds and sods. The smiley faces on the map are the two elected mayors hoping for re-election, and there will be more about them in the next blog. The Welsh elections are for a new Isle of Anglesey council – postponed from last year, following a period in which the former council had to be replaced by appointed commissioners and a programme of recovery and democratic renewal undertaken.

And the barely visible little star off the coast of Cornwall is, of course, the Isles of Scilly. The 21-member, entirely Independent, council can legitimately claim to provide a range of services not just equivalent to but, as a surviving water and sewage authority, greater than that of any mainland unitary authority. They’re not, strictly speaking, a unitary, but they’re counted as one by the Office for National Statistics, and on St Mary’s at least, if not perhaps on all the ‘Off Islands’, they too will be voting on 2nd May.


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.

Council officers as local democracy makers

Philip Lloyd-Williams

To what extent does the lack of training and development of senior officers at local councils impact on the practice of local democracy? Can ‘democracy’ even be taught? It’s a question that has been with me for a while. I have no answers but can offer some personal reflections following research I undertook into the role of senior officers in managing local democracy. From personal knowledge I knew that Chief Executives and Directors of local authorities advised, negotiated and shaped not only the delivery of services but also how citizens engaged with their Councils. As a result, I saw them as what I termed Local Democracy Makers as they held a position of influence and authority which could impact democratic practice – so I decided to have a more detailed look.

Much has changed in local government in the last 20 years. We now have Executive decision making structures with fewer Councillors being involved as decision makers. Commonly services are delivered in partnership or from commissioned providers, often on long term contracts with opaque accountability arrangements. However, what is often mentioned when local government is discussed is the challenge of engaging and connecting with communities, inspiring interest in elections, bucking the trend of low turnout for voting and the senior age profile of Councillors. Securing the democratic mandate and involvement (however it is defined or described) is still considered an integral part of local government. Thus, local democracy is of importance and how it is then shaped, moulded and operated matters. The senior officers as Local Democracy Makers have a powerful and authoritative position in the organisation of local government to have a material bearing on the way local democracy is discharged locally.

Senior officers are well versed and often highly trained in management but there is little training or teaching in the management of political relationships or local Democracy. It’s mostly ‘on the job training’ which in turn influences how the senior officers behave as Local Democracy Makers. I interviewed and observed senior officers interacting with the politicians and I discovered that, unsurprisingly, their own world view of politics, localities and democracy would inform how they enabled and restricted local democracy. Often, the heavy hand of regulation, managerialism, audit and the management of risk would result in a narrow view of how local decisions should be informed by local people. Other elites had several deep political scars that made them suspicious of allowing a more deliberative democratic practice. For certain, the push to achieve a good ranking in performance, financial management and consumer reputation has the effect of marginalising the place of local democracy. Perhaps such findings are to be expected, but when they have an impact on how democracy is practiced it becomes more acute.

So, are we doing enough to raise awareness of the impacts of management arrangements on democratic practice? My research tells me that not enough discussion, debate and possibly training is given to the principles of local democracy in the management and administration of local services. It suggests to me that too much emphasis is placed on the ‘management’ abilities and not enough of the importance of democracy. Like it or not, senior officers in local government act as Local Democracy Makers and we need to actively support them in this role.


Philip’s doctorate from the University of Aston was on the role of local authority officials as ‘makers of democracy’. His career has given him extensive experience of working with elected representatives in local government as a Solicitor. He is an INLOGOV Associate Member and contributes to its Management Development programmes.