Central/local relations, financial self-determination, the nature of leadership, the identity of place, devolution and structures: these are just some of the issues around local government that are common to Ireland, Scotland and England – even if the context can be very different. Looking back to the launch of LGiU Scotland a year ago, the LGiU England team learnt pretty quickly that we shared many concerns and challenges – but also crucially that responses and solutions needed to fit the local circumstances. The same is true of Ireland with severe cuts since 2008 and a major reorganisation in 2014.
Take the nature of leadership and the role of councillors. The Westminster government has insisted on directly elected mayors as a prerequisite for gaining new powers and functions (in the new combined authorities). Yet there has been little discussion about why this is always the best approach or any objective analysis of the evidence from places with existing elected mayors. And in some of these places, citizens have rejected the concept in referenda some years ago. There has simply been no debate about what effective leadership should mean and little about what is the role of councillors in these new authorities where they will be appointed form their authority and therefore lack the mandate of the mayor. Should England be learning lessons from across Europe and from the US where sometimes an elected mayor has been at the forefront of innovation and rejuvenation but not universally so. Of course we should. Are we? I don’t really think so.
What does this mean for Ireland where there may be a possible move towards elected mayors in the coming years, most notably in urban centres/regions like Dublin and Cork? How can good local leadership be judged – what would it look like? There is also the question of identity of place – which is so strong in Ireland but less so in England, and perhaps Scotland is in the middle, with a patchy sense of identity in some areas, but strong in others, like the Islands.
And how can leadership of a place be shared whilst being clear about where accountabilities lie? If the citizen identifies strongly with his/her place, how does this affect discussions around restructuring of local government? Can this sense of identity be retained whilst redoing boundaries?
How does the relationship between the local and the centre look like in the three countries? There are clearly some common concerns from the perspective of local government, but the nature of the relationships are different. In Scotland the pressing issue has been the relationship of Holyrood to Westminster, with local government still rather a sideshow. In England, progress to devolution is increasingly unsure and fragmented. There is still no sign of genuine fiscal devolution in either country. Ireland, as an independent state, starts from a different place with local government having fewer functions and powers, but financial freedoms and less reliance on the centre must also be high on the agenda. Does devolution mean something different in each country?
I have posed lots of questions here and, of course, no answers. What we do know, whether we are in Scotland, England or Ireland, is that local government is facing major challenges – the ongoing impact of globalisation and of the crash and austerity, the issues around social cohesion and immigration (magnified by Brexit), restructuring of industries, rapid growth in some areas and stagnation in others, climate change, inequality – global, European and national issues, but all of them having a direct and indirect impact on all our communities. LGiU Ireland will explore these issues but also look at the solutions to the challenges (and the opportunities that arise) from their impact from the local and more pragmatic level – what is happening in councils across Ireland. We can learn much from each other. Watch this space.