Global Democracy, devolution and governance

The Local Democracy Research Centre review of 2023

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Photo by Parradee Kietsirikul on iStock

2023 at the Local Democracy Research Centre

As the year draws to a close, we’re in a reflective mood at the Local Democracy Research Centre. LGIU’s 40th birthday celebrations throughout the year included a series of interviews with international local government practitioners, and throughout these interviews, important universal themes emerged: finance, participation and trust. These three themes, along with our permanent focus on supporting local government, have informed all of our original research this year, and will continue to as we look forward into 2024.

None of the research we’ve published this year 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.

Finance

Our first major research project this year was the State of Local Government Finance in England survey. We surveyed senior local government figures across England in the run-up to the budget in March, and the results were shocking if not surprising. Only 14% of respondents were confident in the sustainability of local government finances, and 7.5% were concerned that their councils could be incapable of delivering essential services. The three section 114 notices issues since our survey are yet more evidence that local government finances in England are in a critical state, and that service delivery and local democracy across the country are seriously at risk of failure.

This year, we have extended our finance work with an excellent and innovative new project led by Kevin Muldoon-Smith at the University of Northumbria, aiming to investigate how local government is funded across the world. We’ve published reports on England, Germany and Italy so far, and we will be publishing a report on Japan soon. This work has been instrumental in developing our manifesto on the future of local government in England.

Finally, we put together a survey of senior local government figures in Scotland to mirror our English work. The full results will be revealed on December 13th, but if, like us, you were hoping they would present a more optimistic picture than in England, then prepare to be disappointed.

Coming next year… We will repeat our England local government finance survey, with a special focus on the crises in audit and workforce pressures. We will extend our international comparative work to include new countries and write up a paper comparing all the systems we have looked at so far this year. 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 this 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.

Coming next year… 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 this 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 did this 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. Next 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 next 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 has been 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 for next 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.

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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