THE BLOG

Reclaiming Local Democracy: Celebrating Local Government

28/07/2014 12:42 BST | Updated 26/09/2014 10:59 BST

It seems all too easy and convenient for so many national politicians, senior civil servants and the media to dismiss local government as at best an irrelevance and often as a source of waste and blockage to growth and progress. This is wrong.

Successive governments have centralised power and fragmented local public services in the name of progress. They have expected local authorities to act merely as delivery agents for their policies and have repeatedly challenged local democratic collective choice even whilst rhetorically claiming the opposite. This is wrong.

Opposition parties have historically had a tendency to support decentralisation and have more recently used the term 'localism' to demonstrate their recognition of the world beyond London SW1. This time, it is Labour's turn, who this this summer have published a very ambitious set of policies designed to strengthen local government and local accountability. It 'seems' that there is real commitment to implement these policies and to devolve resources too. Time will tell.

In Government, 'New Labour' argued for 'double devolution' - from Whitehall to town hall, and from town hall to communities and neighbourhoods. This approach has much merit but must be locally responsive and locally owned.

And of course, the Coalition Government has made 'localism, localism and localism' core to its political narrative although, as has been the historic pattern once political parties gain power, it has not always respected local government as the core of any meaningful localism. This is true for education policy with the creation of ever more academies and 'free schools'. And ministers still feel the necessity to tell local authorities how often to collect household waste, what salaries to pay senior staff, and what they can and cannot publish in newsletters.

However, the biggest attack on local government for many years has come in the form of unprecedented and disproportionate cuts to funding, with many local authorities facing budget reductions of thirty to forty per cent and even more, and with the prospect that there are still more cuts to come after the general election.

It would be very understandable if political and executive leaders in local government are feeling very hard done by and wondering if their roles are worthwhile. Thankfully, whilst there is indeed evidence of this, so too there are many more examples of leaders seeking to find new ways of protecting their communities and local residents; growing their local economies; and strengthening civil society.

It is against this backdrop that Ines Newman has produced a timely and fascinating book, 'Reclaiming Local Democracy - a progressive future for local government' (Policy Press). Whilst I don't share all of Ines' analysis, conclusions and solutions -I agree with much more than I disagree with. I found the book both stimulating and full of practical ideas and idealism in equal measure. It is great to read a passionate argument for local democracy, local government and elected councillors.

Local government requires and, given the inequality of wealth and resources across the country, will always require central government support based on progressive redistributive principles. Partnership between central and local government would be beneficial with both recognising their respective democratic bases.

Ines, who is well known to many across local government, draws on both theory and practice to speak up for local government and in particular, for councillors. Her book starts with a historic overview of local government and its contribution to addressing human need, tackling the horrors of poverty, slum housing, poor sanitation and child abuse, and offering hope and opportunity. In particular, she notes how Joseph Chamberlain used political power to drive progressive change in nineteenth century Birmingham, and how he and his colleagues mobilised local businesses and civil society to make a difference.

Jumping many years forward this history also describes how the Thatcher Government introduced compulsory competitive tendering and the poll tax on local government; and how many in local government resisted these policies on the basis that they harmed local communities and their services. It also goes on to analyse the impact of the very centrally driven performance management measures introduced by the Blair Government.

Overall, I believe that the historic lessons and examples demonstrate that local government is at its best when it works for and with local people and not as the agent of central government.

Ines Newman clearly has a view that local government should not solely focus on leadership of place, but should also be responsible for direct service delivery. Local government has always delivered services, commissioned and procured and undoubtedly will continue to do all of these. Ines is right to question the wisdom and prudential sense of local authorities only procuring and divesting themselves of all directly managed services.

She is scathing of the impact of outsourcing and in this, there is an inevitable risk that she may fail to understand how procurement and contracts can be used to drive social policy goals and how local government can, in fact, remain effectively accountable for the performance of contracted services. That said, I think she is right to question the relevance of the 'traditional' model of outsourcing in a period of severe austerity, and its ideological pursuit in the absence of adequate evidence of its long-term success. Of course the evidence of the impact of local government outsourcing is very mixed and there are too many instances of accountability being blurred and confused.

Fundamentally, 'Reclaiming Local Democracy' argues for an ethical framework for local government. Ines Newman suggests that this framework should be based on addressing universal needs and the pursuit of social justice with a 'rights-based', in preference to a 'market-based' approach. She argues for 'participation', with local authorities widening capabilities in local communities, whilst at the same time, challenging power imbalances and inequalities.

Local government, she argues, should be driven by a desire to meet local needs, secure social justice and redistribute power and secure excellent outcomes for local people. And it should collaborate with local stakeholders across the public, business and community sectors.

Ines Newman has recognised that local participative democracy has increased with a growing and thriving community-based civil society, but that it can and should go further. She argues that local government should involve staff, service users and the public in decision-making, but that ultimately, elected and accountable councillors should take responsibility for major decisions, and that only they can arbitrate between competing demands and requests. They have to be political and active in their communities.

Personally, I have long argued that local government has to be political. It has to make political choices; it has to avoid being over managerial or reaching only for technical solutions; it has to work with and for local residents; it should have more control and influence over the range of public services in a place (and that the concept of 'Total Place' should be fully implemented); it should collaborate and support a thriving civil society and in particular, the voluntary and community sector whilst respecting the sector's independence); it can facilitate economic growth and support local businesses; it must be values driven and put social justice at the heart of everything it does, and what it wishes others to do.

Local government has to continuously evolve as it has done over many decades. It has the opportunity and duty to mobilise active citizens and social movements.

To do all of this local government has to seize opportunities and not wait for central government permission or licence.However, above all local government must be confident; celebrate its historic and contemporary achievements; and stand up for the people in its place and their communities.

Ines Newman's book should be read by all those who share a commitment to effective democratic local government. If we are to address the core economic, environmental and social challenges and needs of contemporary society, it is a given that we must reclaim local democracy; and that local government must lead.