On the challenge of rebuilding local public services

Our public services are looking increasingly broken, and they look more broken in some areas than others. Why should this be? The UK remains one of the most centralised states, yet economic and social challenges play out every day in communities up and down the country. Crucially, local government and its partners are well placed to understand these challenges in their unique context, to implement actions that address this need, and to be a champion for their place. But fundamental constraints limit the ability of public services to do this. How can we create the system conditions which allow the needs of local people to be addressed more effectively than at present? I argue that we can’t achieve this without overcoming these structural constraints, and that the key to unlocking this is to work towards a new settlement between people and the public services they need. What, in other words, should be the point of public services in the 2020s?   

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part one here.

There remain fundamental, systemic challenges to overcome if we are to seriously look to rebuild local public services. 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, as the current crisis in Northamptonshire illustrates, 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.  

Public funding that isn’t fairly distributed, service demand that can’t be met, delivery structures that make little sense, democratic accountability that is unclear at best, devolution that favours urban areas. 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. These ideas could include detailed proposals addressing a number of core principles.

Here are some thoughts as a starter for ten.

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

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

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

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

Principle of subsidiarity, such as a new role for central government in brokering solutions and unblocking constraints to effective local delivery

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

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

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.

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part one here.

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