England & Wales Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

Viewpoint: Local government can make democracy meaningful again


The special focus of the current edition of c’llr magazine is’Big ideas’. This post from Anthony Zacharzewski, on the pivotal role of local government in rejuvenating democracy, first appeared as part of that feature.

I am writing this in a café where, two years ago, LGiU and the Democratic Society ran a workshop comparing French and English local government. The cafe looks much the same – regulation number of beards and MacBooks for a creative quarter, but the political world outside feels completely different.

The new politics has started to split British local government away from its French colleagues. On the other side of the Atlantic, the new occupant of the White House promises a stronger, protectionist America. Both are the most visible signs of a discontent with democracy that can be found in most advanced democracies.

It might seem like local government is just a cork bobbing along on these huge tides. I don’t agree. Local government is where solving the problems of democracy has to start.

To do this, local government can’t just be local any more. Sharing case studies and experiments, as we did with our French counterparts in Paris two years ago aren’t enough. Local government has to be at the heart of a democratic and public service transformation, but also the local face of a networked democracy that takes the voice of local people to London and beyond, not just on “local government issues”, but on everything.

Many books will be written on what caused Brexit and Trump, but a large part of it was a group of voters who felt that there was no provision for what they wanted, and no way of stopping changes in the world they did not want to see. Right or wrong, this sentiment needs to be tackled.However caused, it has to be tackled at local level. People will see changes at the end of the street, in the places where they work and shop, far more easily that they will see an abstruse policy change in Westminster.

However, those abstruse decisions, on immigration, economics and environment, do shape the powers that local government can use to shape its own places in turn. Local government needs to be involved in these decisions, so local people need to be involved in these decisions.

We are currently starting work on a project to understand how democratic networks at local level can get beyond local issues, and influence national and European policy making. How can local government convince people that they are being listened to? How can local politics rebuild trust in national politics? Here a few initial ideas.

Local government must take the opportunity of devolution further on new methods of service provision, showing that the state isn’t a distant and inflexible monster, but it must do so alongside other services, local and central.

Councils must fight to be empowered and funded to lead on developing these networked approaches. Local democracy will do a better job than Whitehall at ensuring people are treated fairly and equally, and brought into new ways of decision making and service delivery. Councils should lead a campaign for sustained funding across local services to give them the time and space needed to experiment.

To ensure we are not reinventing good ideas, we need better information exchange and systematic experiments within and between local areas, so that ideas that work in one place can be tried, tested and improved as common methods. Innovation spreading has to go beyond the case study and beyond the five minutes over a beer in Harrogate.

Politicians and senior officials will not be able to lead this change unless they develop their skills at leading in networks, far beyond their direct command. There is no future in the elected member being a super-officer. They have to be a voice for the people across the entire spectrum of civic and political life, not just local issues and the local council services.

Finally, local government must lead in maintaining and rebuilding the connections to the world. Connections between towns and cities across Europe and beyond should gather and spread innovations and social connections even further. Those connections may be fragile, a rope bridge over a canyon than a six-lane highway, but even as Britain’s relationship with the world changes, we have to keep the paths open. European countries will always be our nearest neighbours, and decisions that shape the world will always be global as well as local.

The challenge of and to politics is immense. The answer to that challenge has to start on the steps of the town hall, but it has to go around the world.

Anthony Zacharzewski is Governor and Managing Partner of the Democratic Society.

The current edition of c’llr magazine is now available for members. Non members may read past editions.