England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Lessons from the Local

Photo Credit: Smabs Sputzer via Compfight cc

This blog is from an article which appeared in Compass’s ‘Finding Our Voice: Making the 21st Century State’ report, alongside work from Lord Adonis, Keir Starmer and Jon Cruddas.


The challenges we face are well documented. Fiscal austerity, yes, but more significantly the profound questions raised by changes to our society, economy and environment. How will our older people be cared for when there are a hundred times more of them? Will our children have the right skills for jobs that do not yet exist? How do we rebuild local economies in a changing global context? How do we manage local resources? How do we do all of this while spending less money?

We cannot answer these questions by simply refining and improving our current public service offer. Instead, the state must shift from doing things to making things happen. That sounds like a small difference but it is actually a fundamentally different approach.

We need to think about the total asset base of a community and the value in social networks and civic energy; to consider early intervention, not just to invest to save but to build capacity and resilience; to consider how we structure incentives for action, for the market and most importantly for citizens; and to understand the networks of social action already present in every community and to align public services with them.

This is a challenge to the role of the nation state.

Central government will be less all-pervasive as many of the activities it has hoarded to itself began elsewhere. National government must do less, but it will thereby be able to do better the things that only it can do. That is why power is not a zero-sum game. Increased focus and clarity of purpose creates more power through sharing power.

A similar dynamic applies at local level. Communities and citizens will have the opportunity for public services that are responsive to their needs, and adaptive and rooted in real social connections, but they will have to play their part in producing these services and managing their lives, and helping manage the lives of their friends, family and neighbours to build resilience and mitigate the demand for acute service interventions.

That is a huge rethink of how we see the public realm and we are only at the beginning of understanding what it means in practice

Yet we are starting to see some progress in the sharing of power from national to local and in how local authorities are sharing power with their citizens, as demonstrated by the Greater Manchester Authority and Lambeth’s Co-operative Council. See the full report for details.

Greater Manchester and Lambeth point towards this future. Both raise as many questions as they answer, and both could be challenged to go further. But we must try to balance utopianism and pragmatism, and these case studies illustrate how local leaders are seeking to shape the future within the constraints of the present.