England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Re-imagining our municipal future

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The word ‘municipal’ can have a rather dreary image these days. For too many people it is evocative of concrete, of multi storey car parks and of faceless, labyrinthine bureaucracy.

Once, things were different. Once, municipal spoke of the civic pride of great cities; of education for the masses, of clean water and sanitation, the biggest increases in public health and life expectancy this country has ever seen.

We think it’s time to reclaim ‘municipal’ and to reframe it for the twenty-first century. Not just about cities but about relationships and flexible geographies. Not just about physical infrastructure and grand buildings but about a social architecture, a civic infrastructure in which local government catalyses the collaboration of citizens, communities and institutions to work together for the public good.

Why do we need to do this? Because, as we all know, local government faces an unprecedented set of pressures. It still needs to find huge savings, while responding to the demand pressures imposed by substantive changes to our population, economy and environment.

Taken together these short term fiscal pressure and long term changes present a formidable set of obstacles. Over the last four years councils have responded to this challenge by focusing on efficiencies, on back office systems and on reducing head count.

While this has been painful for the organisations involved it has largely protected frontline services, with the result that public satisfaction with local authorities has stood up remarkably well.

So there’s a general consensus about the need for more radical innovation in the commissioning and delivery of public services. But, as I have argued in the pages of The MJ before, it is not clear that the transformation discourse, that is rapidly becoming a new orthodoxy, is good enough.

Shared services; prevention, smarter commissioning and re-organisation are all important and useful but they do not respond to the scale of the challenge we face, nor do they have enough resonance with citizens to galvanise increased civic engagement.

We need to move away from the technical discussions about service transformation that currently dominate the debate and develop a new language of political vision: a vibrant narrative that captures the key characteristics of future local government (or governance) and that creates a shared space in which to debate our municipal futures.

That means finding a new way to talk about local authorities: about what a council does and what it is.

LGiU’s new collection of essays, Municipal Futures is an attempt to begin telling that sort of story. We argue that there are four key characteristics that will define successful local government in the future.

1. The powerful council: we need to stop thinking about decentralisation as a political project in which power must be demanded from the centre. Power is not a zero-sum game, rather it can be much more dynamic and inclusive. We need to recognise and develop the power that already exists in communities across the country.
2. The learning council: councils need to become centres of adaptive leadership that are continually learning both from their own practice and also from that of other sectors. This sets the scene for new and deeper forms of partnership.
3. The social council: councils need to focus more on building relationships. Both the relationships within communities that create wellbeing and allow mutual support and the relationships between people in the council that enable employees to feel secure innovating.
4. The global council: we need to broaden our perspective and to think about localism in a global context. Issues like migration, climate change and economic growth are better managed between cities and localities than mediated by national governments.

This is a vision of the future that makes our current debates about ‘decentralisation’ look hopelessly impoverished.

It would be a world with many opportunities but with challenges of its own.

There would be a clear challenge to the role of the nation state.

Central government would be less all pervasive as many of the activities it has hoarded to itself began to happen elsewhere.

National government would do less, but it would thereby be able to do better the things that only it can do. That’s 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, adaptive and rooted in real social connections, but they will have to play their part in producing these services and in 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.

Shared power, mutual responsibilities and strong, supportive relationships, that’s how we begin to redefine municipalism for the twenty-first century.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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