Thinking about the state-society relationships of local governance leads to a fundamental question – how can local government better engage with citizens, and citizens with each other and government, to effect positive outcomes? Conceptual and practical questions arise about ways to enable democratic forms of participation and collaboration. Here, we focus on the usefulness of a plural (state and society) conceptualisation of an active ‘local state’ in which local government plays a key role along with communities and the wider public sector, growing shared local agency drawing from local capacities (what’s needed to get things done) and capabilities (knowledge, skills, and experience). Key to this is the participation of communities within the collaborative activities of the local state, enabling it to be adaptive and responsive in ‘caring for place’.
In the extremely centralised UK, our tendency to focus on the shaping context of central-local relations encourages zero-sum understandings of local government’s capacity, understood as what is accorded to it, rather than more generative understandings of its ability to develop spaces of agency or ‘power to’. These spaces arise due to the ‘incompleteness’ of governance, providing opportunities for local intentions to shape the implementation and impact of central policies, but also enabling openness to diverse lived experiences and greater responsiveness to local needs and aspirations. Recent scholarship has championed local government’s creativity and pragmatism in its role as leader of place.
In turn, our understandings of local governance have not fully considered the generative capacity of collaborative relations at the local level. Scholarship has tracked shifts in relational conceptualisations of local governance, from the (central) government-centric view with its democratic dysfunction of top-down command and control; to a local government-supplemented view wherein local government plays a coordinating role in increasingly complex networks and partnerships, masking continued forms of elite power; to a local government-decentred view in which local government capacity has been reduced under austerity, wherein relationships with communities of place and experience have become distanced in the absence of financial and in-kind resources, exacerbating inequality.
Thinking about the future of local government entails rethinking local governance and reasserting local government’s vital role in its democratic legitimacy and accountability. To move beyond previous understandings entails a more plural, participatory understanding of a ‘local state’ in which local government fosters and furthers new institutional configurations and ways of doing at the local level, revealing and creating spaces for local agency through the generative potential of collaborative relations with communities of place or experience (based around shared conditions, demographic characteristics or life stages). Such re-theorising of what we understand as ‘the local state’ broadens the range and types of agency, expertise and resources it can muster to care for place.
Local government needs capacity, capability, political will garnered across place – and imagination – to underpin the creation of such participatory spaces through institutional innovations. These can take many forms, such as community-led budgeting of neighbourhood spending pots derived from developer contributions, Total Place-style pooling of siloed service budgets across place, community shaping of public services through co-design, citizens’ assemblies for wicked issues, and ways of bringing parity to lived experience and learned expertise via use of peer and practitioner researchers or creation of commissions (such as the Trafford Poverty Truth Commission) with community and civic commissioners.
But what is key is understanding that knowledge to better care for places and deepen place-based democracy is vested locally in councillors, officers and communities, and can be gathered and put to use by a plural local state in creative, equitable ways far beyond traditional consultation ‘done to’ communities. Importantly, whatever techniques are used, these should seek to develop more accountable and legitimate configurations rather than reinscribe existing alignments of power, control and expertise.
Thinking in terms of ‘the local state’ helps us have a more plural and dispersed understanding of authority and the inclusion of different forms of knowledge that help improve local outcomes. The capacity that inheres within equitable, accountable collaborative relations at the local level can be realised and harnessed to improve local outcomes.