In a new project funded by Research England, the Mile End Institute and the Local Government Information Unit are working together to understand how a public policy agenda oriented towards “wellbeing” and “place-shaping” is faring amid the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As an increasingly significant aspect of the public policy agenda, wellbeing is ‘an idea whose time has come’ according to a recent analysis by Ian Bache and Louise Reardon. Place-shaping is also prominent in local government discourse, as a recent LGIU and Queen Mary research paper has shown. These ideas go right to the heart of what local government is for. They raise important questions about its constitutional role and the relationship between people and the state. There is a long-standing view that the role of councils is fundamentally transactional. Councils, on this view, exist to deliver centrally mandated services and to implement policies that are largely determined by the central government. But it can be argued that councils actually have a much more expansive role in promoting wellbeing across communities, ensuring participation and representation, shaping local identities, and aligning economic growth with environmental and social concerns.
A decade of austerity has led the central government to refocus on a narrow measure of public sector efficiency when dealing with local councils. George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda, as well as devolution to combined authorities, adopted this narrow concern with economic growth through city-regions. Yet for all that, ideas of place and wellbeing have become increasingly embedded in the way local government leaders think and act.
But how does this more expansive role for local government fare amidst an ongoing crisis? That is what this research project will investigate.
Councils in England face a perfect storm of challenges in 2021. Firstly, they are at the forefront of policy responses to the Covid-19 crisis and will be required to adapt swiftly to new levels of demand, new ways of interacting with local residents, and new expectations from the public. Secondly, they are already required to respond to and facilitate a range of abrupt and far-reaching changes in the wake of Britain leaving the European Union.
Finally, they face a financial crisis that has been increasing in intensity for the last decade but has become particularly acute over the last year. Croydon Council has recently issued an S114 notice, effectively announcing that it is bankrupt, but several other councils have either reported or are reported to be in similarly dire straits. There are serious risks in the finances of the sector that have not been fully appreciated by decision-makers.
Providing leadership and delivering a decent level of accessible services in these circumstances will be both enormously important and extremely challenging. By responding to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, many local authorities have shown their capacity and desire to act as leaders across places, while central government has at times struggled to keep on top of the crisis. This project will explore the ways that local government has adapted and how important policy agendas like “wellbeing” and “place-shaping” are understood and the real impact they may or may not have on local policymaking.
Understanding what works and what the challenges are for wellbeing and place-shaping policy is an important part of this research.
The focus on wellbeing and life satisfaction indicators has been particularly important in shifting attention from narrow measurements of local GDP, prosperity, and property values to wider concerns with the physical and psychological health of the whole population in a given area or place.
In our recent paper Power Down to Level Up, we argued that policymakers need to develop shared metrics and frameworks that demonstrate the value of wellbeing and place. There is a need for a clearer understanding of what success looks like. This project is therefore partly about gathering and investigating a range of case studies from across English local government and abroad that demonstrate how to measure the impact of local policy.
This approach should build on recent efforts to create new local wellbeing measurement frameworks that utilise the latest developments in data science. There are fruitful approaches being developed for this. Diana Coyle, for example, proposes replacing GDP-orientated measurement frameworks with efforts to measure the “assets” that exist in a particular place, while CLES (the national organisation for local economics) has built a framework around “community wealth building”. New research from the Social Mobility Commission has deepened the understanding of social mobility in local geographical contexts.
The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are developing a ward-level “social progress index” that measures the wellbeing of citizens in a particular locality across three dimensions: basic human needs; foundations of wellbeing; and opportunity. The aim is to help build thriving neighbourhoods using ward-level data to make more informed decisions about priorities and policy.
Bradford City Council is working with local health care providers and researchers to develop a set of life chances and outcomes measurements across a widespread cohort in the city. Working in partnership with Leeds City Council, which hosts the Open Data Institute, they are conducting some pathbreaking work on incorporating data into measurements of policy outcomes.
By capturing and analysing these various approaches, this project will help us to understand how significant this public policy agenda is for local government. It may offer a set of principles and strategies for stronger and more effective policymaking, which supports communities and guides a longer-term recovery from recent crises.