In the previous two articles I’ve explored the reasons why we should care about the state of local government, underlaid by the assumption that people don’t care as much as they should do. These are summarised as follows: public funding isn’t fairly distributed, service demand that can’t be met, delivery structures make little sense, democratic accountability is unclear, devolution favours urban areas, and the idea that public services are all in this together.
Depending on your philosophy or viewpoint, these challenges are playing out as either the systematic dismantling of the local public sector and the ability of local government to fund its basic statutory functions, or the liberating of local places to respond entrepreneurially to their local conditions with whatever local resources they can muster.
What is clearly beyond doubt is that these trends manifest differently in different parts of the country, driving spatial inequality. To most people, where they live is the most important place in their world. It’s where you go to school, support your local football team, it’s where you work, bring up children, socialise, shop, exercise, fall in love. Geography matters. What happens if we reach the point at which our ability to live fulfilling lives is undermined by an inadequately-funded public sector? Are we close to a tipping point at which the collective impact of these challenges creates an opportunity for change? In such moments, ideas about what the future could look like are at a premium.
Flowing from the above analysis, these ideas could include detailed proposals addressing a number of core principles. Here are some thoughts as a starter for ten:
- 1. Principle of engagement, such as a national conversation about the role of public services and the identification of those most appropriately delivered at national and local levels, leading to a new settlement that codifies a constructive relationship between central government, local public services and citizens
- 2. Principle of co-terminosity, such as the creation of similarly-sized unitary councils across the UK, based on functional economic geographies, and the (eventual) alignment of other public services on the same boundaries
- 3. Principle of collaboration, such as a requirement to join up local public services in those localities, sharing support services and taking a systems approach to local challenges
- 4. Principle of accountability, such as giving locally elected leaders a mandate to oversee all public services in their area, increasing the incentive to vote and ensuring clear accountability is primarily to local people not to central government
- 5. Principle of subsidiarity, such as a new role for central government in brokering solutions and unblocking constraints to effective local delivery
- 6. Principle of affordability, such as a redistributive approach to funding that reflects variations in need and is clear, transparent and responsive in the way it is administered
- 7. Principle of prevention, such as a requirement to invest a certain proportion of local public funds in prevention services, to ensure that demand is reduced at the earliest possible opportunity
- 8. Principle of transparency, such as ensuring that every decision at every level is open for everyone to see
A nuanced, locally appropriate approach is required to effectively address the emergent and intensifying social and economic challenges, one that is grounded in an understanding of context and complexity. Who is best placed to do this in a particular place? I argue it is people themselves, for whom these challenges reflect their lived reality, and those we charge with the democratic mandate to do something about them. The core role for the local authority of the 2020s will be to understand and respond to the needs of its place and its citizens.
To support this we desperately need to imagine what a new, effective relationship between national and local public sector bodies and our communities could look like. One that liberates individual and collective agency. One that is not constrained by targets and standardisation. One that is responsive to relative levels of need. One that replaces accountability to government departments with stronger accountability to local people. And underpinning this debate is the question of what should be the role of public services – at a national, regional and local level – in helping citizens and communities meet their needs.