England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Under pressure

Photo by Michel Porro on Unsplash

It is a great joy to write a monthly column for The MJ, going out to a local government audience, but it does have one down side. Writing for any other sector or industry one could dial in the August column, confident that your audience will be on the beach, by the pool or otherwise absent, but local government is always on.

The range of responsibilities councils have and their centrality to civic life means that they have very limited down time. Local government is always there.

And this summer more than most, local government is going to be watching, wondering and worrying. There is a new administration in town with a new secretary of state and new ministers to get used to.

We have learned that local government has a difficult intermediate status as far as new Governments are concerned: neither a priority, nor immune from interference.

For council chiefs, the two big ticket and immediate worries are finance and social care. Will a new Government act on either of these before it is too late? The PM has made supportive noises but we have heard these noises before.

Local government will also be bracing itself for a stormy autumn. Brexit, we are told, is happening by Halloween ‘no ifs, no buts’. Bookies, pundits and markets are all treating a no-deal Brexit as a serious possibility. That means gearing up all the preparations that were stood down at the end of March and readying for an economic shock.

Moreover, a no-deal Brexit is likely to be preceded by, or to cause a General Election, so electoral administrators will be enjoying a summer rest while they can.

With all of this to worry about what gets lost is the time to think about some of the long-term challenges local government needs to get to grips with. For me there are three significant problems.

First, public service transformation: we have, of necessity, improved public service delivery in local government. But by and large we have got better at doing what we already do. In the long-term however, we know that we need to ‘do’ services in a very different way. But how do we move from ‘better’ to ‘different’?

Second, climate change. This is an issue that more councils recognise as being the most pressing of all.

Over 100 councils have declared climate emergencies, many have set carbon reduction targets far more ambitious than central Government’s, but we are still only at the beginning of understanding what it might mean to deal with potentially catastrophic climate change within a generation.

Finally, and leading on from both of the previous issues, there is the question of how you bring people with you.

We live in an era of vanishing trust in politics and declining faith in institutions. Yet local government as an institution has to work out how to make transformation something it does together with communities not ‘to’ them.

That is not a hugely original list and here’s the rub, it is not a new one, either. A decade ago when I first started writing about local government, I and many others would have said that the big issues facing the sector were public service transformation, climate change and citizen engagement.

Have we made progress? In one sense, yes, and there are fantastic examples of councils around the country responding to all these challenges, but we have not seen systemic change.

The tragedy of local government is that over a decade of pressure, the urgent has crowded out the important and the big picture has been obscured by the struggle to survive.

Now, as local government battles through another summer of anxiety, that tragedy is set to continue.

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

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