On the things about local public services you never realised you cared about (part 2)

Our public services are looking increasingly broken, and they look more broken in some areas than others. Why should this be? In part one of this three-part series I looked at the first three reasons why we should care about the way our local public services – and local authorities in particular – are being emasculated. Here are the second three reasons. 

Devolution favours urban metropolitan areas. The introduction of devolution deals in metropolitan areas creates a two-speed highway for public services. There is as yet no equivalent for the 20% of the population living in rural and coastal areas, which have equally relevant needs. These changes have tended to be cloaked in language around devolution, localisation and empowerment but the reality is that there has little, if any, real devolution of power to local areas, only the technical passporting of budgets with enhanced ties to the Treasury. Devolution of functions such as health in Greater Manchester or transport to the West Midlands has certainly not seen the strings of accountability to central government cut and replaced with accountability instead to local people. 

As a result, levels of democratic accountability vary from place to place. The experiment of Combined Authorities creates another tier of confusion: there are nine combined authorities, of which seven have devolution deals and six  (eg Liverpool, Manchester, West Midlands), have directly elected mayors. The Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is a position covering an area with a unitary, a county, five district and 240 town and parish councils – plus six parliamentary constituencies (excluding MEPs). If you live in Rochdale you vote for Council, Metro Mayor, MPs. In Wiltshire, Parish/Town and unitary Councillors, a Police and Crime Commissioner and MPs. Move between any of these places and your routes for getting things done vary significantly. Who do you approach about anti-social behaviour in your community, the lack of adult education or changes to a bus route? 

Perhaps it is ok to have a geographically incoherent set of service delivery and accountability arrangements; perhaps it’s always been so. But as we approach the 2020s its clear that the failings of our outdated bureaucracies and practices need addressing, and that the opportunities to do so requires new skills, mindsets and – yes – new, coherent structural forms. Ones that reflect new ways of organising, engaging, working, living, representing. Heiman and Timms call this the shift from old power to new power. There will always be geographical differences between places and their needs, but having different levels and scales of public services, resources and accountability surely compounds this.

Local government structures are a mess. Over the last decade there has been a dramatic and systematic shift in the structures through which we are governed with significant changes at regional and local levels without an equal shift in the structures of central government. In a world obsessed with efficiency and productivity it seems inconceivable that we haven’t figured out the most appropriate balance between population size and geographical size for the delivery of high quality, sustainable public services. Councils have merged functions across different counties (eg Breckland in Norfolk and South Holland in Lincolnshire), merged altogether (eg West Somerset and Taunton Deane District Councils), been abolished all together (the creation of five unitary county councils in 2009 saw the abolition of 28 district councils), nearly gone bust (Northamptonshire) been perceived as too small to be viable (Rutland, most district councils), been newly created (Wiltshire, Shropshire), and, in the case of Central Bedfordshire, refer to a county that no longer exists (in an administrative sense). 

Proposals to create new unitary councils are based more on the symbolic need to have a visible new start than on any rational assessment of what would work for local residents of the county (a process that took three years when led by the Boundary Committee in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon in the late 2000s). The country is further covered by a patchwork of largely unelected Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) of different sizes and scales, where some local authority areas align with multiple LEPSs. And the idea of co-terminosity – of public services sharing the same administrative boundaries – remains largely unfulfilled. Unitary councils aren’t necessarily the answer. Headline cash-savings are one thing, but economies of organisational scale can be off-set in more rural areas by resulting service delivery challenges and by Increased remoteness form the communities they serve. And just merging district and county functions Into a new organisation doesn’t’ mean that service silos will disappear. Surely there is more to be gained by merging local public services In a place – not just council services? As public services are about people and places, is it not more important that they join up horizontally in a place then they serve the vertical hierarchy to central government? Imagine public services joined up in a locality on a systems basis with local people and local accountability at their heart.   

The public sector should all be in this together The unhealthy, paternalistic attitude with which central government treats local government and local services creates a polarising, combative relationship. Exhibits include this patronising paper from Eric Pickles a few years ago, or the recent blame put on Local Authorities for the government not hitting its affordable housing targets. By devolving the responsibility to absorb significant funding cuts, central government has in effect used local government as a shield for austerity. 

Few citizens have the time or inclination to tease out the nuances around where the motivation to make cuts comes from; it’s all public services. But they see potholes in their roads as they drive to work, they can’t access after-school services for their child, they find it harder to access social care services for their elderly relative, they wait longer at A&E. Decisions by central government impact local people in their communities and those on the front line feel their pain, asked to pass on these cuts and often taking the blame for it. This is not the principle of subsidiarity in action – that decisions about people and places should be taken as close as possible to them. It is like having someone tie your hands behind your back and then criticise you for not being able to swim. Cut your funding and then blame you for the service cuts you have no choice but to make. 

Such cuts are compounded by the introduction of place-by-place economic competition for revenue, unhelpful for those living in areas which have highest demand and lowest ability to meet that demand. Is it any wonder we are hearing that councils might be on the brink of going bankrupt, or that they are merging functions to save funding? But this is moving them fundamentally away from their core role, sucking up the energies of people otherwise working against the odds to make life in their communities better for those that live there. Public sector staff, often those driven by strong intrinsic motivation and alignment with the values of public service, have been asked to become experts in cutting costs, doing more with less and bringing commercialisation to services that often shouldn’t even be provided by the state. They are, in many cases, holding things together through sheer will and determination and a desire not to let local people down. This is a tough place to be.  

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