I have written before in these pages about the ways in which our politics is being changed by a widespread collapse of trust in institutions. This encompasses politics in general, the media, banks, large corporations and inevitably, to some extent, local government.
A couple of months ago, I argued that while this is often talked about under the label of ‘post truth’ politics – that is, a politics in which people’s beliefs are defined by emotional resonance rather than objective evidence – it makes more sense to talk about ‘post institutional’ or ‘post trust’ politics.
This collapse in trust has many sources. Some are general – the changing nature of employment in post industrial economies; the differential effects of globalisation; rapid population changes in some communities. Some are more specific, such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the MP’s expenses scandal of 2009. And to this list we must now, sadly, add the Grenfell Tower fire.
All feed a sense that decision-making elites are detached from, and no longer represent the interests of, the people they are meant to serve. To date, local government has retained a higher degree of trust than national government – but it cannot stand apart from these changes.
When the secretary of state warned the Local Government Association conference that local government faced ‘a looming crisis of trust’ he elicited a furious response from the sector.
And of course, it is difficult to discuss these issues with Grenfell looming over us. There is a police investigation and a public enquiry which will seek to clarify what happened in Kensington & Chelsea but clearly, as well as technical and managerial failings, there was a failure of representation. This feeds into exactly the sort of alienation and anger that creates post trust politics.
What makes local government so special is that there is a direct democratic mechanism by which the concerns, needs and aspirations of communities are hardwired into decision making by their elected representatives.
Where this is not working, local government loses its practical and ideological raison d’être. It is neither fair nor accurate to generalise these failings across local government but Sajid Javid was right to point out that we are operating in a context in which public trust in institutions is flatlining and there is a real risk that the Grenfell disaster has a negative impact on trust in local government.
Post trust politics matters desperately, not only because it opens the door to irresponsible strains of populism, but because it closes the door to the sort of change we need to see.
We are all familiar with the pressures placed upon local government by increasing demand in key service areas and by complex changes to our demographies, economies and environments.
In response, the broad outline of public service reform is becoming clear. We need to move from a system that is geared towards acute intervention to one that is characterised by demand management, prevention, integration of services and which is designed around the needs of service users. That requires more collaboration, more co-production: a new relationship between citizen, civil society and (local) state in which each supports the other. Or in other words, we need more trust, just at the time when there is less of it to go around.
How can we square this circle? That’s an ongoing task, but part of the answer must be to relentlessly build participation and dialogue into the way councils work.
A new report from Local Trust (aptly) and the Local Government Information Unit examines one aspect of this, arguing that councils and communities together can sustain public trust in local government – but only if they commit to a more engaged and open way of working. It features case studies from across England, and identifies how councillors can actively support resident-led projects by:
1) Sowing the seeds of activism – identifying need and capacity in communities and spreading the word that the council is open to working with residents.
2) Encouraging community ownership – reflecting voices that aren’t usually heard and ensuring all council strategies are formulated in conjunction with local stakeholders.
3) Lending a hand – advising residents how to navigate the council’s processes, acting as advocates and facilitating connections and access to resources.
4) Spreading the word – creating a constant dialogue between council and residents and between different groups of residents.
All of that requires councillors to exercise a different form of representative leadership. And it requires councils to allow them to work in this way. This is only a small part of the answer. But it does point the way to the sort of engagement that will design trust back into local government.
We have become accustomed over the last decade to talking about the fiscal deficit. But the real deficit we should be worrying about now is the trust deficit. Eliminating that might just be our greatest priority.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.