Connected Localism? The future of local government

08.07.2013 Blog

In a new collection of essays published by LGiU, the Local Government Information Unit, Jonathan Carr-West argues that English local government is at a crossroads. Funding has been cut and challenges are many, but he believes citizens have a unique opportunity to create a vibrant new form of civil settlement. A shift toward localism has already begun, signaled by changing clinical commissioning structures in healthcare, and elected police commissioners. He believes that people should have maximal influence over their own local environments, and this shift will inevitably involve a re-localisation of politics.  Local government’s role will then shift to ‘curating places’ and working with communities so that fewer services are required. In this scenario, citizens may have to do increased heavy lifting, while the state will act more as an enabling framework than as a service provider. Carr-West admits that there are tough questions to be faced regarding whether there will then be inequality of service provision across the country (so-called 'postcode lotteries’) but at the same time asserts that local innovation will permit greater variety in the political system which will drive competition, and ultimately increase the chance of finding successful solutions for universal problems.

Greater localism poses a major challenge to the existing constitutional and administrative settlement in British politics. Until now, those in favour of localism have sought to tack reforms onto the existing constitutional framework. Contributor Patrick Diamond, however, explores a new framework of structural reform that would permanently root power in local communities. He notes that greater power has been given to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and believes that there is an appetite in England for a shift in power away from Westminster.  He believes that public services will only be redesigned locally if there is greater financial devolution, with local government having additional scope to raise revenues, borrow flexibly and decide on mainstream spending priorities. Furthermore he argues that the current system of council tax is regressive, and that a progressive local taxation system is urgently needed.

With regard to the current funding crisis, Diamond argues that the most promising response must be to ‘draw imaginatively on the capabilities, structures, networks and capacities which exist within local neighbourhoods and communities, coupled with a climate genuinely geared towards social innovation’. He believes that there needs to be a greater tolerance of risk-taking in public services, and responds to fears of a postcode lottery by pointing out that there is already significant inequality of outcome within the current centrally planned system. Rather than advocating for a new one-size-fits-all constitutional arrangement, Diamond suggests a series of localised experiments, where communities have the opportunity to decide for themselves how they might best be governed.

His case for 'connected localism' rests on Amartya Sen’s account of capabilities. Sen argues that public policy must be concerned with enhancing the capability functioning of individuals, and people should be equipped with the skills and resources they need through public services and the welfare state. This invariably means treating people differently according to their circumstances, and Diamond understands this as ‘promoting self-actualisation rather than paternalism’. Sen’s framework too emphasises the importance of local tacit knowledge, and the imperative of decentralisation and devolution to the local level.

Localism itself comes from a political position that supports personal action, small scale community initiatives and skepticism about large institutions, both state and corporate. All three main UK political parties have made manifesto commitments to localism, and it is a tradition present in both the co-operative local action of the Rochdale pioneers and Burke’s “little platoons”. As an increasingly consumer-driven society is accustomed to having choice and control over decisions and services, the task of implementing localism becomes a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’. In this collection, Anthony Zacharzewski takes time to envisage how a truly participatory local politics would work. He looks forward to an open, networked and democratically run localism, inspired by the example of Switzerland, where local elections see a higher turnout than national ones. This localism would involve councils sharing decision making with citizens by giving them free access to relevant information and context, leading to a different culture of involvement. Furthermore, there would be an understanding that people are part of overlapping and interlocked networks, and a willingness to engage with them as such. Finally, the process would be democratic, with real scope for citizens to influence outcomes. In this model, councillors would work more as conveners of conversations around their wards than as decision makers. Zacharzewski argues that this would mean that communications teams were less and less needed in local government. Instead, all staff would show a familiarity with the public, a readiness to engage and an ability to respond helpfully.

In her contribution, Sophia Park gets to grips with the tough realities of getting innovation to happen and making it stick. She argues that ‘the task for government is to find ways of encouraging each of us to contribute as much as we can’. Public, voluntary and private sector organisations should therefore provide not only safety nets, but also springboards, and should work in tandem with informal networks of support. For Park, innovation is not being successfully fostered by current arrangements, where instances of innovation continue to feel like a ‘happy accident’ which emerge despite a risk-averse and paternalistic culture of targets and prescribed tasks. However, there is scope for this to change. She comments, ‘if standardisation and mass production were the defining characteristics of our relationship to the State in the 20th century, personalization, participation and co-production are the public service watchwords of the 21st century’. She cites approvingly examples of cases where councils have employed the services of ethnographic research companies such as ESRO in order to more deeply understand the needs and concerns of citizens and shape policy accordingly.

In the final essay of the collection, Richard Reeves examines what really empowering communities might entail. In particular, he examines the question of whether one can really have both social mobility and localism. So far, the debate about social mobility has been conducted at a national level, yet Reeves argues that a concerted effort to promote social mobility ‘cannot ignore the profound, self-replicating influence of local cultures and institutions.’ He acknowledges that some fear a postcode lottery effect might be strengthened by increased localism, but instead he argues that local authorities need to pursue not only stronger communities in themselves, but also brighter opportunities for the individuals that comprise them.

It is clear from this collection of essays that the face of local government is changing rapidly. These contributors foresee a future where services are curated rather than managed, where informal networks of support are supplemented rather than ignored, and where citizens themselves have much greater say in decisions about their community. Furthermore, radical ideas are put forward about changing the structure of taxation and decision making so that there is much more of a direct connection between citizens and local government. There is acknowledgement that many fear adverse effects of this increased localism, most notably postcode lotteries and hindered social mobility, in addition to reduced efficiency. With regard to postcode lotteries, Carr-West argues that their negative effects will be countered by the increased potential for innovation, which will ultimately have universal benefit through the sharing of best practice. This however seems entirely speculative, and it seems undeniable that the localism that is suggested here may serve simply to reinforce existing divisions.

Furthermore, while Carr-West looks forward to the day when local government is able to manage places in such a way that services aren’t necessary, an expectation that citizens will be able to look after themselves if only given some pointers seems fanciful and dangerous. In a worst case scenario, the suggestions of these contributors could lead to a disjointed and divided country, which only provides solutions for those who have the necessary resources to manipulate the system or move location to ensure they receive the best services. While the essays in this collection should certainly serve as a discussion piece, more detail needs to be filled in before they can become policy.

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