How we can save local government so local government can save us…
Since 1983, LGIU has supported our members with the insights, ideas and connections they need to navigate a changing world. Throughout that time, we have made the case for stronger, more autonomous local government and more robust local democracy.
Forty years on, we need local government more than ever. The big problems of the 21st century can only be tackled with it. But too often, local government is not as strong as we need it to be.
This week, we launch a new manifesto for local government (live 6 December, 00:01 GMT). It begins with a detailed look at the situation in the UK. We started in England 40 years ago, and this is where local government is in acute peril today.
As we spread our support and coverage more widely to reach every corner of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Australia, our experience underlined what we already suspected: that local governments worldwide share many of the challenges faced in one area. As we build resources with our members to address the key pillars in our manifesto, we will universalise messages and draw from the experience of many places in many nations. Our efforts to capture and share global lessons will continue as we work with local governments to support their communities, building on what works well and helping our members adapt lessons to local circumstances wherever they are. Over the last three months, we have drawn together international lessons across our three main lines of enquiry:
At LGIU, we believe in localism, both as a democratic ideal and because local innovation often best meets complex challenges. We believe in local government as the institutional form that facilitates and legitimises localism. We believe that the problems that communities face can be solved with:
- more democracy rather than less,
- clear standards and trust with transparency rather than imposed structures, and
- coordination rather than control.
The presumption must be that locally elected officials can work with communities to find the best solutions so long as electoral rights are respected, participation is encouraged, facilitated and embedded in local decision-making, and local democratic institutions have the freedom and the funding to achieve regional ambitions.
Throughout 2023, we have engaged with senior political and managerial leadership in local government, with academics and key stakeholders, to identify a new way of thinking about local governance. Based on our collective experience and a series of deep and focused conversations, we believe we need a new covenant between central and local government founded on the following core principles:
Parity of esteem and a recognition that local government does not draw its mandate or its authority from central government: it has a mandate directly from the electorate. A vote for a councillor is worth the same as a vote for a state or provincial representative or a member of a national parliament or congress. This should be recognised.
Sustained subsidiarity: meaning decisions should be made at the lowest level possible as a matter of democratic principle and as a driver of public service effectiveness and citizen engagement.
Embedded autonomy – we need systems where successful local powers of action and decision-making are embedded within and supported by structures of active intergovernmental cooperation and interstate relations.
Participation must be developed in two directions. We need more participation from local government in central government decision-making, and we need local government to ensure the involvement of citizens. Properly funded, properly structured local democratic institutions are the key enablers.
National success has local foundations. Local governments have a key role in meeting our national and global challenges.
We know from working with 300 councils worldwide that local government is doing some amazing things, often in the face of considerable odds. We see the curation of joined-up, preventative public services, care delivered to people who need it most, and councils and communities working together to imagine and deliver sustainable, resilient places that work for all their residents.
But we also know that local government delivers all this at a huge disadvantage. An inadequate funding system, a lack of constitutional clarity and declining trust in institutions all undermine the foundations of successful local government.
We call on our membership in the UK to support our manifesto and to work with us to achieve it. We call on our membership outside the UK to support us in sharing the lessons of what works where they are, to translate the challenges we’ve enumerated in this most recent document to their local structures and circumstances. We call on the global community of local governments to work with us to advocate for stronger local government that is fit to face future challenges.
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