Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU).
Many of the challenges we face are global in their scope. Climate change, demographics, housing, community resilience, AI, economic development, to name but a few: all global trends that come home to roost in local communities across the world and all issues that governments across the world are grappling with.
At LGIU we know that it is difficult, maybe impossible, to respond to these challenges without giving local government a leading role. This is because localism is both a democratic and a practical good. Innovation must be local, responsive to specific contexts and draw upon the creativity of local people.
But, if we need localism – if we want localism to work – we also need local government as the institutional form that facilitates and legitimises localism. Local government pulls together the strands – growth, services, delivery, engagement – and gives people a stake in their places.
But we also know that around the world local government is prevented from playing this role to its full potential. It is hindered by financial constraints and the absence of a sustainable and autonomous funding system. It is subject to ongoing competition around which decisions should properly reside at community, local government, regional and national levels.
Finally, it is faced by declining levels of trust in political institutions which inhibits participation in civic life.
So, to mark LGIU’s fortieth anniversary, we are launching a major new campaign LGIU@40: For the Future of Local Government which brings together our members, and the wider global local government community, around five key questions:
1. What if local government was funded properly?
We know from international comparisons that different ways of funding local government drive different outcomes and that strong sustainably funded local government is the best way to address regional inequalities and create sustainable growth. What lessons can we learn about the best ways to do this?
2. What if central government trusted local government to do its job?
Relations between central and local government are often strained. Too often they are seen as a “zero sum” competition for power. We need a different type of conversation about this: one in which form follows function to enable services to be delivered, citizens engaged and decisions made at the appropriate level.
3. What if people trusted democratic institutions again?
Around the world we see a declining trust in our institutions and administrators. This trust deficit erodes civic life and prevents us from shifting to the sort of co-designed public services we need. Rebuilding public trust is a job for government at all levels. But local democratic institutions – embedded in the very heart of our communities – are in a position to be the keystone of a new understanding.
4. What if people really participated in local democracy?
Trust in local democratic institutions provides a platform for community engagement. It’s important for pride in place, for well-being and for the creation of social capital but it also sets an essential platform for public service reform. We need to tap into the civic energy and creative insights of citizens and communities, to generate a culture of adaptive innovation, but we need to do this in a way that preserves institutional virtues such as representation, accountability and the balancing of competing interests.
5. Why is local government the answer?
So we begin from a central hypothesis; based on the 40 years’ experience of working with local government. If you want to solve the big problems we face you need to begin with the local. You need networks of local action and innovation. But crucially, you need these to be facilitated by local democratic institutions. What we have called connected localism: connected across geographies, across sectors and across the public realm. This is both a democratic and a practical imperative.
Over the course of our LGIU@40 campaign we will be launching a conversation with our members and others about how we can power up local government to face the future. We will learn from existing reviews and from new research.
Together, we will map a way forward and take steps to move from aspiration to practical action.
We hope that this exercise sets out a framework that will set local government on the right path for the next forty years and will help it to be the force for change that we all need everywhere in the world. And we hope that you will join us.