On local government: abolition, emasculation or rejuvenation? (Part 2)

It’s not usually a topic of general conversation, yet local government is at a critical Covid-exacerbated cross-roads. Fork right and head towards complete abolition. Head straight on and continue down a path of fiscal and legal emasculation. Fork left and head towards rejuvenation. In this concluding post I explore the more optimistic option.

(Read part one here).

Both the abolition and emasculation scenarios lead to a revolution in the social contract, and one that no citizen has been asked about. There are some very real challenges here, of course. The reliance on a patchwork of largely private-sector providers leads to an un-coordinated and fractured set of delivery vehicles and arrangements that remain impenetrable to access and navigate at best. The result is the obfuscation of responsibility and a lack of accountability over decisions that impact people and communities. All of this, in turn, grounded in a complete absence of legitimacy. 

Service access switching fully online exacerbates the digital divide. Local services will be fractured and uncoordinated and reinforce silos not systems. Core government initiatives will be launched under the protection of the NHS brand as will some core services such as parks and open spaces, refuse contracts and planning services. It is hard to see how such scenarios enable people and places to thrive and for the development of both to be in service to the long-term. Who is accountable for thinking of the impact on future generations? 

The rejuvenation scenario is, of course, the most optimistic and sees the reincarnation of local government as the fundamental building block of a new entrepreneurial state. The decade pre-pandemic saw local government systematically and ideologically streamlined, sidelined and undermined. The period of the pandemic itself was the turning point in which people saw the value and the need for local publicly-funded services that are fairly resourced, locally delivered, accessible and transparent and locally accountable. 

Fair funding is based on a agreement that the places struggling under the worst economic conditions receive more funding than the more affluent parts of the country. Publicly-funded services recognises the state, at a national and local level, as a facilitator, enabler and barrier-remover. Delivery is a sector-agnostic activity so long as needs are met. 

Powers are negotiated from the community and the neighbourhood up following a national conversation in which local people have shaped the new social contract that best enables them to live the kind of lives they want to, post-pandemic. Local services meet local needs and are appropriate to context.  

This is the core role of a new local government. A shaper of places, now and in the future, in ways that are specific to their localities and neighbourhoods, not mandated from Westminster. Stimulating locally-appropriate innovations and ideas that grow out of local assets and resources with the potential to transform local quality of life. A systems convener, seeing the whole and ensuring local needs are met and causes championed. A focus on closing gaps of structural inequality. Operating openly and transparently, making difficult decisions about the allocation of often scarce resources, brokering conversations about different competing options and working with conflicing viewpoints. 

This does not result in a postcode lottery, for such a framing is to suggest inherent unfairness. Instead, there is variation by design out of necessity. What works in Bradford won’t be appropriate in Bude; what matters is that people in both places have the mechanisms to secure the support and services they need – specific to their context, in other words. 

Underpinning all this is a long-term persepctive in which the ecological, social and economic needs of future generations are considered along-side more immediate demands. If locally-elected decision-makers are not accountable to local people today and those of future generations, who will be?

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