England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Sub national government: universal themes and local differences


Image by TheDigitalWay from Pixabay

Taking part in the European Congress of Local Government earlier this month made me think about how local government across Europe shares so many themes and priorities, writes Janet Sillett. But also about how it is different in every part of the continent – after all local government is both local and universal.

The Congress is mainly a vehicle for central and eastern Europe – there were few speakers or delegates from western Europe. And that made it fascinating. How did these countries shape new local governance after the fall of the Soviet Union; what have been their main failures and successes; what can they teach us about strengthening local self-government?

My first impression (apart from how huge and confusing this conference was) was how male it was and how white. The largest number of mayors were from Polish municipalities – only 11 out of 107 mayors are women in Poland. But this isn’t unique globally – of the world’s 300 largest cities only 25 have women mayors. Our record in England isn’t any better of course.

The first panel I went to raised some of the core issues that were replayed at other sessions – ‘Contemporary local government tasks and challenges’ – what should be the appropriate division of power, how can competencies be divided, how should local authorities be funded? The speakers – leaders and mayors – spelt out familiar themes; the tensions between tiers of local and regional government and the degree of local self-governance enabled by the structures and the funding of sub national government. There was a stark contrast between Sweden and Russia – the Swedish leader said she didn’t talk about tiers of local government as there wasn’t a hierarchical relationship between the levels – each level determines its own level and type of taxation. The speaker from Russia outlined what he felt was needed for strong local government – a democratic electoral system, stable and sustainable financing, and independence from the centre. He said Russia had none of these. Local government, he said, exists but not self-government. He was (unusually for this conference) an opposition councillor, but he did outline what seemed to be serious political and constitutional problems.

There are many different types of sub national structures across Europe but there are also major political differences about what local self government means. There was a discussion around whether a strong constitution was needed to protect the independence of local government – so that central government couldn’t override it in its inevitable drive for power – which apparently exists in Sweden just as much as elsewhere. This issue has never quite gone away in the UK.

What were the other themes that are so familiar? There were many but to name a few – the role of cities as engines of growth, the meaning of civic leadership, the engagement of citizens, the development of smart cities and towns, migration and immigration. We have been publishing a series on towns and the discussion at the Congress raised similar challenges, such as how can small cities near major ones (like Warsaw) retain young, skilled residents. There were jobs locally but not necessarily attractive and better-paid ones.

There was a lot of debate about resident participation. The context for this is somewhat different for these post-communist countries. Local government in many of them was virtually invented – or reinvented – when the Soviet Union collapsed. This was about building civic society and not just putting in place the structures and legal frameworks of local government. Poland underwent huge reforms in 1990 when there had been no experience of local government before. Citizens committees were set up and new leaders were committed to involving residents in the debates around local issues.

There has been lots of change since 1990 – the impact of the 2008 crash was devastating in Poland, but the emphasis on engagement has continued. Many of the mayors talked about their use of social media – Instagram, facebook live chat and twitter, a mayoral app, going to where residents gather rather than waiting for them to come to surgeries and open walks with councillors, holding a monthly café with the mayor: different ways of ensuring two way communications and making space where decisions can be made collaboratively. Directly elected mayors were introduced in Poland in 2002 – one mayor said they didn’t want them to become ‘monarchs’ – citizen involvement was critical. Polish municipalities have to have a citizens budget in place which receives more state funding if it is participatory (though the Act to introduce it was not discussed with local government and has inevitable flaws in it).

Of course it isn’t all wonderful – voter turnout isn’t always high and there are the usual tensions and suspicion. Social media can be innovative but also encourage division and bigotry – issues we have to face here as well.

Several mayors talked about the need to cultivate the next generation of leaders and how difficult it could be for them to acquire experience. And what should effective city leadership look like – especially as they no longer are seen as knowing everything (and patently do not anyway). What are the qualities local leaders need?

Finally, the session I spoke at was the only one with an all women panel – about the arts and social challenges. Listening to the Polish young woman who ran an amazing arts hub in Warsaw it became clearer where some of these new leaders should be coming from. And not just in Poland.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.