England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Rolling out a new institutionalism

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Local government decamped to the seaside last week for the Local Government Association (LGA) conference in Bournemouth. Despite the genteel surroundings, the conference itself was fairly robust. The LGA seems to have rediscovered its campaigning mojo recently.

New research that it released on the eve of the conference underlined the parlous state of local government finance and the profoundly negative impact of uncertainty over how it will be funded next year. That is a familiar story, but it cannot be repeated too often.

At the same time, the new LGA chair made a strident call for the incoming Prime Minister to let local government get on with job and a pitch for a New Localism Settlement and a Devolution Bill in the next Parliament.

There was even an echo of this in the secretary of state’s call for a Green Paper that can ‘look afresh at the entire ecosystem underpinning local government’.

Notwithstanding my pedantic, but persistent concerns about the concept of devolution – as central Government graciously cedes some of its power to local government – this is all good stuff. It echoes the calls we at Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) and many others have been making for a radically different political settlement and a clean slate dialogue about the role and function of local government and its relationship with communities.

It would be easy to be cynical and to observe that saying it, doesn’t make it so.

We should welcome the beginning of a consensus that complex problems need to be addressed at a local level and that we need to fundamentally rethink the institutional and social structures that support local political agency.

At the same time, we need to ask some tough questions, not just about what change we want but how we want it to happen.

At the end of his speech James Brokenshire made an interesting observation about the need for ‘human’ virtues like self-sacrifice, frugality and belief to be counted above ‘mechanical’ virtues like agility, dynamism and high energy.

There is certainly something in this: if we see local government as being about systems and process and not about human connection we lose something that is both precious and powerful. This emphasis on connection is also present in broader culture.

We live in a world in which networks are rapidly replacing institutions as our primary mode of organisation.

Many of our most powerful emergent forces for change are non-hierarchical, non-organisational networks.

Extinction Rebellion, for example, whose influence could be felt at LGA conference as councillors voted to declare a climate emergency across local government.

We are often told we need organisation without organisations and it is certainly true that most organisations – including local government – has been to slow to open up and allow different forms of connections and action.

But institutions did not develop solely to entrench existing power structures although that is often their effect on their mature form. They evolved to solve human problems.

If there are human virtues and system virtues, there are also institutional virtues such as representation, accountability and the balancing of competing interests. If we are too quick to abandon these institutional virtues we may find that we come to miss them.

So, maybe, alongside a new localism we need some sort of new institutionalism? Can institutions adjust and adapt or do we have to start again? That’s a genuinely open question but it may be an increasingly crucial one.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.

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