We’ve spent the last year talking to leading local government figures across the world about the challenges and opportunities across the sector, and we’ve brought together everything we’ve learnt in a new manifesto: LGIU@40: For the Future of Local Government.
The LGIU research symposium gave us an opportunity to reflect on our findings with a group of experts – academics and practitioners – to map out the future of our research agenda, and of local government as a whole.
The symposium was so rich with ideas that segmenting in any meaningful way is a tricky task – and if you have the time, we would definitely recommend watching our speakers’ presentations – but we have narrowed it down to three core areas: 1) Where are we now? 2) Where should we be going? 3) How do we get there?
For each of these we had a few answers and many, many more questions.
Where are we now?
Professor Patrick Diamond expertly set out the three great crises facing local government today. First, the deepest financial crisis in the postwar period, local government has been driven to the edge by a combination of cuts to central government grants, rising service demands and – recently – inflationary pressure. Dr Peter Eckersley raised the most pressing question of all when it comes to local government finances: in a situation where the local state is under such severe financial pressure, what is local government actually for?
Second, the governance crisis. Local government has shifted from a local representative system with relative autonomy to more of an arm of the central government reinforced with top-down performance management, where changes to local administration can be driven through without deliberation between central and local government.
Finally, the policy crisis. Patrick compared the 47% of local government spending that is on procurement to the 27% in central government, and raised the issues this causes with understanding the lines of responsibility and ensuring the quality of services.
However, it’s not all bad news. As Dr Hannah Bunting told us, local government is still relatively more trusted than central government (50% trust compared to ⅓) and Keiran Pedley from Ipsos presented evidence that people see councils as having a greater impact on quality of life in their local area than national politicians. However, he also showed clear evidence that people do not feel well-informed about local councils.
And, as a stark warning, Dr Madeleine Pill spoke about the pressures faced by the city of Baltimore, where a state of permanent austerity has left the local state marginalised, disempowered and reliant on private and nonprofit organisations. A clear situation to avoid wherever possible.
On an optimistic note, Keiran Pedley also showed that 64% of people support local authorities being given more power over local decisions. Which brings us on to…
Where should we be going?
Problems are hardly worth outlining if you can’t offer any solutions, and luckily for us, our own CEO, Dr Jonathan Carr-West, and the LGIU@40 manifesto provided plenty.
He put forward a few short-term measures that central government(s) could change immediately to improve local government finance; ending competitive bid funding, which serves only to waste many councils’ resources in competing for bids that only a small number will ever win. A return to multi-year funding settlements. A reversion to a needs-based funding formula to allow funding to match responsibilities. Then, in an ongoing way, a commitment to early consultation on budgets and on developing government policy relevant to local authorities.
Then there are the changes that may take longer, but are equally important. Implementing a standing forum to allow regular discussion between central and local governments. Statutory incorporation of subsidiarity, devolution by default, single-regional budgets. The LGIU@40 manifesto gave a full list, but it was clear there is no shortage of good ideas.
Our panellists added to this list. Theo Blackwell MBE spoke to us about the importance of unleashing the power of local data to improve local services and decision-making. Madeleine Pill talked about forming a plural local state and building inclusive, relational models of trust. She also raised the importance of mutual respect between the two tiers of government, each recognising the importance of the other.
Then, there were provocative questions. Liz Richardson asked a simple but very difficult question: is there a difference between the governance models we should want local and national governments to have? We know there are differences between the two, but do we want them to operate in different ways because of their respective roles and responsibilities?
The sector is brimming with ideas for how things can be improved, perhaps as a consequence of being in a state of several overlapping crises. What’s more difficult is figuring out how we can get from where we are now to where we should be.
How do we get there?
This final point was the most difficult to answer. Panellists suggest changes in government might offer an opportunity.
Jonathan Carr-West reflected on the question of whether we need to make different arguments for different audiences – notably the public and central governments – before concluding that, in fact, we need to make the same case, that empowered local government is the best way to make an impact on local places.
A question from the audience also prompted a discussion on how local authorities can make the case for change.
This is an open question for all of us: how do we encourage real change? Together at the symposium, our participants expertly diagnosed the problem and presented a series of imaginative and realistic solutions, but the next step is the most crucial one: bringing about change.
As enlightening as the symposium was, I sincerely hope for the sake of the sector that at the next symposium we are not having the same discussions again.