Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Local Democracy Research Centre: Quarter one update

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2024 at the Local Democracy Research Centre and a look back at 2023.

Finance

The LDRC has worked on three major projects so far in 2024. First, we published our systematic review of local government finance in Japan, written by the team led by Kevin Muldoon-Smith at the University of Northumbria. From there, we published our analysis of how local government finance in England could be improved using lessons for our international research. The lessons there are really worth absorbing (especially if you happen to be the UK government), and one of our co-authors, Mark Sandford, was featured on the front page of LGC with his write-up of the lessons.

Next, we published our annual state of local government finance report in England, with our series of shocking, if not surprising, results. It’s fair to say this was the most media attention our report has ever received, with our report being mentioned in the UK Parliament, BBC Panorama, and BBC Newsnight, and half of all respondents who said they were likely to issue a section 114 notice in the next 5 years definitely warranted the attention.

Finally, in 2024, we have just published our annual Ones to Watch guide, our data-driven and locally-informed analysis of the most interesting and important competitions at the upcoming English local elections.

In 2023, we launched our finance project on how local government is funded across the world, with new reports on England, Germany, and Italy. This work has been instrumental in developing our manifesto on the future of local government in England.

Additionally, we surveyed senior local government figures in Scotland to mirror our English work. The full results, like England, sadly did not present an optimistic picture.

Later this year… We will extend our international comparative work even further to include new countries and write up a paper comparing all the systems we have looked at so far in our project. Then, we are aiming to produce more international finance surveys, in Australia and Ireland to start with. Together, these projects will extend our understanding of local government finance across the world, and act as a guide for how systems can change to deal with the ever-increasing pressures of demographic, climatic and technological change.

Participation

Our first major project on participation last year was our research, funded by the JRSST-Charitable Trust, into the new voter identification requirements introduced across the UK this year. Our work focussed on the extraordinary efforts administrators behind-the-scenes were putting into making these new requirements work. We found that elections in England are under threat of major failures if the pressures on administrators are not reduced, with severe and potentially calamitous consequences for democracy.

We also worked on a project funded by Browne Jacobson into how local authorities can work to build and maintain democratic support for net zero. As climate change becomes a greater and greater policy priority for local decision-makers, and is the effects of climate change and the transition to net zero will come to affect every area of local government, it is more important than ever to consider how we can ensure democratic support for these vital changes.

Finally, we worked with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) on a paper examining how councils can build up local economies in a way that improves local opportunities, wellbeing and participation in the economy. Economic growth cannot be for growth’s own sake, and by situating local economic growth as an opportunity to improve local peoples’ lives, the report makes a strong case for local and national policy changes geared towards more inclusive local economies.

In 2024, we will be continuing our work on voter identification at the general election (whenever that may be), and our work on the local elections. As we build our research agenda for next year, particularly at the LDRC symposium, we will be looking for ways we can support local government with research on participation.

Trust

There are two types of trust that we thought about last year. The first is how citizens can trust their governments. This permeated our work on the impact of voter ID, democratic support for net zero, and our polling with Ipsos before the 2023 local elections where we found that local councils were more trusted than national politicians by some margin (but less than the police or local communities). The second type of trust, is the trust that central government has that local government can do its job.

One report we published last year touched on both of these questions. Our report, written in partnership with Browne Jacobson and Lawyers in Local Government, on the role of the monitoring officer – the statutory officer responsible for making sure English councils follow the law and obey their codes of conduct – examines how this key role underpins how the public and central government can trust local government to do what it is meant to. Unfortunately, we found that monitoring officers have been systematically undermined through a combination of funding cuts and reduced powers to enforce standards. This year, we hope to extend our research on these mechanisms for ensuring compliance with legal regulations and codes of conduct in other countries.

Also, on the topic of trust between central and local governments, we have the Centre for Care report on the proposals for the creation of a National Care Service in Scotland. If it goes ahead, this proposal would fundamentally alter the relationship between central and local government in Scotland around a service area that is currently considered to be the greatest short-term and long-term pressure on council finances. This research is a timely and effective rebalancing of the debate to take into account the expertise of local governments in delivering adult social care.

Coming this year… We will be continuing our work on the relationship between the public, central government and local government, with a particular focus on combined authorities. We’ll be looking more at the audit crisis, the issue stopping us from gaining key insights into local government spending – and the relationship between transparency in local audits and trust.

Looking forward

2023 was a big year across local government, and our research agenda has reflected that. But there is no time to rest now. We are building our research agenda this year, and we need your suggestions. Do you have any big questions about local government, any research you wish someone would do, or any research you would like to work on with us? We are always open to suggestions and welcome all feedback, advice and guidance.

None of the research we’ve published would have been possible without vital contributions from local government practitioners and academic experts. The LDRC is a collective project, and we want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken part in our research: whether that’s providing evidence, lending your expertise, reflecting on the work or helping us to build our future research agenda. Thank you.

Please contact me at [email protected] for any reason. And make sure you’re signed up to LGIU to stay in the loop with everything happening in the world of local government.



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