England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

We must revisit the role of local government

There is always a beginning of term feeling to September, but this year it feels more acute than usual, writes Jonathan Carr-West.

A tumultuous 18 months in British politics culminated in an early summer where in the space of a few weeks we had a General Election, two terrorist attacks and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

It is hardly surprising everything went quiet after that. Having fought each other almost to a standstill in June, national politicians retired to regroup over the summer (local politicians have to keep running places without the benefit of a formal recess).

As we enter conference season there’s a sense from all parties that they need to kick-start their agenda. So we can expect a lively and possibly punchy conference season with all the parties in campaign mode (and still trying to paper over some fundamental internal divisions). And of course over and above all this there’s Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.

But what of local government in all this? Well, don’t hold your breath. The big issues for local government: finance reform, social care funding and devolution have all been in a state of suspended animation (otherwise know as consultation) for some time.

A lack of ideas, resource and political capital make it unlikely that we are going to see rapid progress on any of these.

There is a danger local government remains left on the sidelines as the big political themes play out and that as a sector, we let than happen. This would be a mistake.

As I have argued in this column over the last couple of months, there is an opportunity here for local government to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting: coming up with solutions which central government has neither the capacity, nor perhaps the inclination, to deliver.

That is also an important step in addressing the ‘trust deficit’ that affects all our political institutions.

But this is not just an opportunity for councils to address the issues that most closely concern them. It is an opportunity for the nation as a whole.

The argument should be not just that local government deserves to play a more prominent role in national politics (though it does); it should be that the big challenges the nation faces can only be solved if we draw on the innovation, civic energy and problem solving capacity that can be mobilised by local government, local communities and local leaders.

The Local Government Association has called for local government to have a seat at the table in the Brexit negotiations. We would go further and say that local leaders need to be given a formal role in agreeing any Brexit deal.

Similarly, we should have formal local government involvement, not just consultation, in the development of the Industrial Strategy and local finance reform. We will be publishing detailed proposals to that effect over the autumn.

Of course that would require a very different view of the relationship between central and local government to that which has prevailed for most of the last 40 years.

There is a long tradition of arguing for a constitutional codification of the role of local government.

As chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, Graham Allen MP was a notable champion of this approach and as long ago as 2005, LGiU was arguing for the European Charter of Local Self Government to be formally recognised in UK law (obviously that’s not going to happen now).

While approving the sentiment I have always been slightly wary of this approach believing that what you do is more important than the basis on which you do it and that local government was better placed using its intellectual energy to drive forward service innovation rather than getting tangled up in legal and constitutional arguments.

Of course it is vital we do not let ‘big’ politics distract us from the everyday task of transforming places and representing communities, but this does feel like a propitious time to revisit these arguments.

Whether we like it or not and whether anyone really intended to do so, our current constitutional settlement is being upended by Brexit, but also by developments in those areas in which we have already seen devolution agreements.

It is early days, but already there are signs the new directly-elected metro mayors are expanding pushing the boundaries of their original remit and using their soft power to take on a broader place-shaping role.

So, the British political landscape is in flux. If ever there was a time to revisit and remake the case for a new constitutional settlements which works from the margins to the centre and which invests real national power in local leaders and the communities they serve, then that time is surely now.

Jonathan Carr-West is LGiU’s Chief Executive. This article first appeared in The MJ, 14th September 2017.