England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Municipal Postcard: The common threads of local government


Jonathan Carr-West found hearing about the challenges and development of local government from various parts of the Commonwealth a strangely familiar experience.

Earlier in summer, I spent two days in Gaborone at the research colloquium of the Commonwealth Local Government Conference.

Academics and practitioners from around the commonwealth presented papers on the key issues facing local government in their part of the world.

All were interesting of course, but for me, as always, the real fascination is in observing how far patterns of similarity emerge in the contributions from very different parts of the world.

I’m never quite sure whether to be dismayed or encouraged about how many of the problems local government wrestles with in the UK are the same or similar in other countries.

Three themes that I thought came out particularly strongly were decentralisation, funding and what, for want of a better phrase, we might call networked growth.

Decentralisation we’re familiar with as a political discourse and it’s something we’ve written extensively about at LGiU; what was striking in the presentations from Botswana and Lesotho and others was how much more detailed their decentralisation programmes were. Is that a good thing? On one level there’s something attractively well thought out about a thick tome setting out how devolution is expected to work, but I still think that decentralisation to a template rather misses the point and that the sort of demand led, piecemeal devolution we are developing has the virtue of allowing places that want to move faster to do so and ensuring that the shape of centralised settlements is appropriate.

Part of the devolution debate in this country has been about funding – trying to give local government the tools to be less financially dependent on central government – and this was echoed in presentations from Southern Africa. There was a clear sense that without the ability to raise money locally decentralisation cannot be entirely meaningful.

In this country the funding conversation has mainly been about allowing local government to realise the benefits of growth. In other places there is a much more developed conversation about what forms of taxes might be localised.

Finally, there was a set of emerging ideas about how empowered local government might enable growth: from across Africa came examples of how in rapidly growing urban environments growth was best served not by big shiny infrastructure developments, but through supporting and growing smaller scale economic activity. In the megacity of the future scale and change become hard to manage at anything other than a micro level and the role of the local authority becomes far more about networking and catalysing growth.

That’s worth considering in relation to our own northern powerhouse and in something the LGiU is actively investigating in our continuing work on resilience.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGiU.