England & Wales, Global, Scotland Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Local government in 2021

Photo by Sara Kurig on Unsplash

Every year, at about this time, various media outlets make a stab at predicting how next year will develop. Despite most missing the biggest issue of 2020, they will try again. The future hasn’t gone away.

One of the first out and most widely read is The Economist’s ‘World in 2021’, where the editor has identified 10 key themes for the year. In this blog, I will attempt to make these predictions relevant to local government.

The vaccines. If 2020 was about the virus then 2021 will be about the vaccines. There will be a clear role for all local authorities with public health responsibilities to help develop the delivery strategies for immunisation. Inevitably, a lot of attention will be focused on quantity of vaccinations and the important 70% target which should confer some global herd immunity. However, apart from the logistics there will be social challenges that local authorities are best placed to tackle. Public health professionals are already aware of differing health outcomes related to poverty and it will be important to ensure that vaccination programmes do not miss certain sectors of society. Local authorities will have to step up their communication efforts to the level of overt persuasion because this health emergency has taken place against a background of misinformation on social media and a vocal minority trying to persuade us all that vaccines are not safe.

Economic recovery. Most of the heavy lifting will be the responsibility of national governments but this recession will be different. The impact of Covid has not been uniform across places, it has not been predictable and its effect on national and local economies will be profound. The recovery will consequently be patchy in terms of geography and sector. National governments can address this by investing in infrastructure targeted in such a way to support hard-hit employers but this must be complemented by local economic recovery strategies that prioritise the next economy rather than seek to preserve the previous one.

Return of a rules-based order. 2021 will see a ‘Democracy Summit’ led by the new US President and a ‘Democracy 10’ or D10 to complement the G7 presided over by the UK. Democracy is fighting back and the narrative needs to evolve from a focus on voting to the other pillars of democracy – the rule of law and the accountable institutions that form the building blocks of society. There is a risk that revitalising national democracy indirectly weakens local democracy, it makes no sense to argue for rules and institutions if these are just centralised behemoths. The case must also be made for the health of local democracy. Covid-19 illustrated that properly resourced and powerful local governments were much better at tackling infection rates.

Companies on the front line. Increasingly, we are seeing traditional political activism turn its attention to private companies. For example, activist investors changing corporate strategy on social issues or employees walking out over corporate ethical behaviour. The private sector is being brought into the political sphere, usually against their will. There is an opportunity for local authorities to help guide this process for everyone’s benefit. At the strategic level, this may mean economic development strategies that encourage industry which is in tune with social ambitions. It may mean advising those local companies at risk of activism so that they can engage positively or adapt business plans in time. It may mean a more grown-up partnership between local authorities and local business, one that moves beyond a desire for the local authority to just leave business alone.

The accelerated uptake of technology. This change is most obvious in how meetings are undertaken, homeworking or shopping. That a shift has occurred is undeniable, but how sticky is it? in what areas will we have changed tack permanently, and where will we slide back to old ways? Many local authorities have made irreversible changes, with offices being sold off, homeworking equipment bought and new ways of working recognised to be useful. The change to shopping and working habits is set to have a big impact on local authority finances if they are dependent upon business rate revenue or tourism taxes charged in local hotels or local retail sales taxes. As the world moves online, all of these reduce. The money can be replaced by central funds but at the cost of fiscal independence. Local authorities face a stark choice: do they actively promote the old ways and hope existing funding streams recover; do they turn to safer income streams based on residency and home ownership; or do they develop new tax income, based on the new world?

People wander less. Tourism will take time to recover, people have rediscovered their locale, families will stay together longer, and business travel is harder to justify now that everyone has got used to zoom. In any particular place there will be less cultural exchange – with people opting instead to stay nearby and take ‘staycations’. Local authorities can use this opportunity to add to the richness of people’s lives through local festivals and events. In areas where the definition of a break was to get as far away from home as possible, there’s a chance to redefine leisure time and focus on the wellbeing of the community. This is not something a local authority can provide alone but it can facilitate a lot. Local authorities can also construct attractive offers to the young and ambitious who may wish to move out, demonstrating that business can be done anywhere now and the vibrant culture they desire can be created locally.

Climate change. The delayed COP 26 in Glasgow together with changes in the US herald a reboot for global efforts to tackle climate change. Of course, activity never really slowed locally – though it is still patchy. Many local authorities, either individually or as part of national plans, have developed ‘Green Recovery Plans’, and net zero targets proliferate. It has always been the case that adaptation to climate change was the natural strength of local authorities, and this should be built on and developed into a wider narrative of resilience that captures not just hard infrastructure but increased community capability. Resilient communities will be able to withstand the effects of climate change; in fact, they will thrive in the new world and will also have the capacity to address other external shocks.

Year of déjà vu. Lots of things cancelled from 2020 will have another go in 2021, including local elections.

China. Big global politics at play here, with potential impacts on the global supply chain as illustrated by PPE shortages, so there’s a chance for local authorities to examine their dependency on Chinese goods and services and see if their local economies can fill any gaps created.

A new perspective on risk. The global pandemic was neither unexpected nor unplanned for. Nevertheless, it wrought havoc because its arrival was not taken seriously. For at least the next few years behaviour is likely to change, and that means high impact but medium/low probability events will gain new attention. We can expect taskforces on superbugs, nuclear terrorism and the more apocalyptic impacts of climate change. As plans are formulated to deal with this threat, the case must be made for the role of strong local institutions. Centralised states’ knee jerk response to Covid was to centralise more. Given proper time to plan, a more even distribution of power should prevail.

One thought on “Local government in 2021

  1. Thoughtful, well reasoned and reported. However, truth is often so complicated and evolving that people do not have trust in who or what to believe.

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