The State of the Locals 2024

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Introduction

Each year, LGIU commissions Ipsos to carry out polling on UK attitudes to local elections, the work of councillors and the role of local government in England.

Download the full State of the Locals findings.

At first glance, this year’s polling paints a picture of declining trust in government at all levels and a public that is pessimistic about falling standards of public services.

Local government still fares better than central government, as they have done in previous years. For councils and councillors, the fall in trust and the rising perception that they are not working towards the best interests of local people have not increased hugely on last year’s results. And they have certainly not reached the off-the-cliff levels of distrust felt about central government.

So, while the corrosive nature of steadily declining levels of trust should not be underestimated, there is still time for local government to begin to reverse this situation.

These polling results also provide a clue to how we can begin this process. A large proportion of respondents think that decisions affecting the local area should be made by an equal mix of residents and local experts. Sitting as they do at the heart of local places and as the only local stakeholder with a democratic mandate, councils are well placed to start the journey of reconnecting residents with the decisions that affect their lives.

Low turnout at local elections implies that people don’t feel that their vote has much of an impact. We need to begin a serious investigation into how local government can facilitate more buy-in from residents and what exactly it is we mean by local representation.

The other thing that needs to happen is for local government to be enabled to work better. To be given the autonomy to shape policy decisions to local circumstances and local needs and to be supported by a funding mechanism that means those decisions can be financed effectively and sustainably. The LGIU’s practical set of reforms outlined in LGIU@40: For the Future of Local Government provides a blueprint for these strong foundations, which local government will need if we are to turn the tide of declining trust and rising pessimism. And our research into local government finance in other countries provides solutions – proven to work –  that can start to mend the broken system that continues to hinder councils in England.

Trust and councils

This year’s survey unsurprisingly shows a continued downward trajectory of trust in all stakeholders. This coincides with pessimism about the quality of local services, with almost half of respondents saying that they have got worse over the past five years. The older the respondent the more likely they are to feel that services have worsened, perhaps a depressing reflection – in addition to greater service use by older people – that the youngest generation has never experienced the same level of service as their older counterparts.

Chart showing falling trust in a range of stakeholders

 

Chart showing proportion of respondents who think public services have worsened

Declining trust and its corrosive effect on democracy and civic life are deeply concerning for all levels of government. Local government and councillors are still more trusted than central government, for whom the numbers are dire. Councils have an opportunity to start turning the situation around.

Respondents to our polling recognised that councils significantly impact their everyday lives and the quality of their local areas. They also believed that elected councillors play an important role in their local places. This importance is also reflected in who they credit and blame for local services improving or getting worse.

Chart showing proportion who credit councils & councillors with any service improvements

 

Chart showing proportion who blame councils & councillors for worse services

 

Chart showing which stakeholders people think have the most impact on their lives and areas

Establishing a link between residents and decisions

Councils are clearly recognised by residents as integral to local areas and local services. But they are not as trusted as they should be. This may in part be because people don’t really understand how they work and how decisions are made. Our polling indicates that people do want to know more about how decisions are made and a proportion want to have a greater say in how decisions are made, although for most this doesn’t translate into active participation.

Chart showing how many people understand what a council does

Chart showing how many people want to know more about what councils do.

Restoring the connection between residents, local democracy and municipal institutions is a matter of urgency if we are to reverse the current draining away of trust. Bringing people into the decision-making loop is fundamental to revitalising their relationship with councils and the services that they deliver.

Our polling demonstrates that the public is eager for residents’ voices to be heard in decision-making alongside experts. Local government, together with communities, must start exploring what that mix should look like and, more broadly, examine what we mean by local representation within a democratic framework. Given that the majority do not currently trust councillors (52%) or councils (53%) to work towards their best interests, this presents us with a significant problem.

Chart showing which categories of people want decisions to be made by residents, experts or both

 

Summary

These findings show that the public recognises the important role that councils and councillors play locally. They tend to view local government as having a greater impact than central government on things that matter in places and communities.

While public trust in government has fallen across the board, local government remains more trusted than Westminster. This is a far from positive outcome but it does indicate the potential for rebuilding public trust in government from the ground up, harnessing the connection that people have with local decision making.

Reflecting this opportunity, the results show that people, on the whole, feel that local residents should be included with experts in decision-making processes. This indicates an appetite for a rebalancing of power and that local government is well situated as a site for experimentation in new forms of democracy and representation.

While people acknowledge the role that councils play in shaping local lives, there remains a low level of awareness about what they actually do. Educating the public about the role and functions of local government, as well as the outcomes that councils are able to achieve, would be an important first step in rebuilding trust.

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