England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Grant me three wishes: what local government wants

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

In just over a week (or longer…) we’ll have a new government in place. If local government could have three wishes from the new administration, what would they be?

Last week, we invited members of the LGiU policy network down to the office for a couple of roundtables exploring the party manifestos and what’s in them for local government. The people who came reflected our broad member base: policy officers from districts, counties, cities and London boroughs of all political colours, and with very different challenges across the country – but a lot of similarities too.

We asked what they as local government – as people working to improve and innovative the delivery of public services – wanted from the next government (whoever that might be). Let’s imagine for a moment that anything is possible. We’ve found an old lamp, we’ve given it a polish, and a genie has popped out. What would local government wish for?

Below are three possible wishes: fix the finance system; put real power in the hands of local government; and respect. You might have others – tell us what you’d want in the comments below.

lamp 1

The message from all three major parties is that we’re only halfway there on tackling the deficit, although the scale of likely future cuts obviously differs. That’s what was in the manifestos. What wasn’t in the manifestos is what local government actually wants: a comprehensive review of the ‘broken’ local government finance system.

Every year, we work with the Municipal Journal to ask councils about the current state of local government finance. In this year’s survey 9 out of 10 councils felt that the local government finance system is not fit for purpose. The message couldn’t have been clearer, but this isn’t reflected in any of the manifestos.

lamp 2

Devolution is the ‘mood music’ of the manifestos. It’s clear that the Conservatives would almost certainly continue their system of competitive devolution, with groups of councils who put together a convincing bid for greater powers reaping the benefits. Manchester is the favoured child here – but we’re all very aware that the 10 Manchester authorities have a long history of working together. Crucially, there was also the political will or push to do it from Whitehall (and specifically George Osborne).

What works in Manchester (or indeed Liverpool, or Sheffield) might not work in quite the same way in, say, a two-tier county with multiple districts – each with its own complex web of partners and relationships. If Conservative-style devolution depends on an elected mayor, what happens when everyone agrees that’s exactly what they don’t want?

Under Labour, there’d be no requirement for an elected mayor. They’d introduce an English Devolution Act within the year – but the structure they want to devolve powers down to are Combined Authorities partnered up with ‘reformed’ Local Enterprise Partnerships. The Liberal Democrats display far more appetite for bigger – regional? – structures, referencing a potential Cornish Assembly.

Again, what’s missing from the manifestos is what local government wants: a solid plan for fiscal devolution. Increasing numbers of councils are dreaming of self-sufficiency. Expanding business rate retention (keeping the proceeds of the tax that councils collect from local businesses, but pass onto central government) is a popular method. Perhaps local government is less concerned with the style of devolution on offer, and more with the substance.

lamp 3

These proposals around devolution are important – they reflect not only the major parties’ plans for local government, but also their opinion of it. There is real doubt in councils over the level of understanding and respect that central government has for local government. Local government runs libraries, removes household rubbish and maintains our roads and footpaths. It looks after older people within our communities. It educates our children. It is responsible for the look and feel of the places in which we live. The new government – and civil servants – have a duty to understand what local government does and involve it in decisions about its future.

That’s why local government’s third wish might well be respect from central government, and understanding about the role it plays in everyone’s lives.

What would your three wishes be? Let us know in the comments.

Thanks to Browne Jacobson LLP for sponsoring the events as part of their ongoing work with local authorities. See their recent report following a devolution roundtable, which LGiU contributed to.

For more detailed analysis of the manifestos, check our project page for a collection of blogs, briefings and comment around the general election.