● Successive governments have reduced the power and competence of local councils
● We need more power for councils – but also for communities themselves
● The UK should lead the world in innovations in democracy and local governance
In the three preceding posts I have argued for a more local (Proposition 6) and a more social economy (Proposition 7), and for public services to be shaped by and accountable to communities (Proposition 8). This final post under ‘Community’ makes the most radical suggestion. We need a profound redistribution of power from central government to local places.
England, despite lacking a state of its own, is one of the most centralised nations in the world. [Fully 75% of spending on local services is given to local agencies by central government, with strict instructions on how to spend it.] In no other country of our size are local communities controlled by the centre to the degree that ours are.
As described in earlier posts (Proposition 2 and Proposition 8), the post-war years saw new central bureaucracies created to manage health and welfare. Over time, and particularly recently, education has become detached from local government. Of the major services only social care remains funded and overseen by local councils, which now allocate over half their budgets to this function. Meanwhile, the decades have seen a steady loss in councils’ power to raise money themselves.
Why is this? There is an obvious reason. Local councils have often been very bad stewards of the local economy and public sector. In the 1980s, infamously, London and Liverpool were led by far-left councils which nearly bankrupted their cities. And today councils are not free of incompetence, cronyism, and a purblind protectionism that hampers innovation and growth.
But the more substantial reason for the diminution of local government is that the doctrine of economic mobility, described above (Proposition 6), chafes against the particularity of local places. A ‘spatially blind’ investment policy – sending public money where the quickest and biggest return could be found, without reference to local needs or circumstances – demands as smooth a landscape as possible.
The new ‘economics of place’ requires greater variation in the political topography of the country. Cities, counties and towns need greater powers. Recent steps towards devolution of power to mayors in the biggest English cities pave the way for a more substantial decentralisation.
The English roll their eyes at the idea of more local politicians. But this is a cynicism born of despair. We need mayors in every city and perhaps even elected leaders (sheriffs, they should be called, from the Saxon) for counties.
But the main event of the revolution we need isn’t a transfer of power from one layer of government to another. The apparently perverse public resistance to more local democracy is the consequence of decades of local politicians disregarding the communities they represent. The real change we need is for communities themselves – not councils – to take back control.
A new wind is blowing through local government. In 2010, with deep cuts coming to local authority budgets, the town of Wigan decided to use austerity as a means of transformation. The council’s leadership reduced head office staff but kept front-line services open by empowering staff with more discretion; by exhorting and trusting residents to take more responsibility, for instance over recycling and public health; and by inviting community groups to take over public assets and functions and manage them independently of the council. Wigan has a flatter bureaucracy and a greater diversity of organisations managing the public realm, and it supports good conduct – virtue, as I’ve called it (Proposition 1) – among residents. This is the corollary to the leaner, more capable and strategic central state we need (Proposition 3).
Like the organic ‘social solutions’ growing through the cracks in the welfare state (Proposition 8), new democratic innovations are challenging the old model of council power. The Community Organising model, which has been quietly underway with government support for the last decade, enables local people to take action together on the things that matter, challenging local government or public services but also assuming agency themselves.
As I wrote in a report last summer, ‘New models of direct democracy, both digitally enabled and via old-new methods of gathering people together for deliberation and decision making, are being developed in different places around the world. The UK should aspire to lead the world in innovations in democracy, using the tools of deliberative democracy, participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies and others, to create the plural public square we need: less paternal, hierarchical, bureaucratic and remedial; more collaborative, entrepreneurial and preventative.’
As this suggests, technology offers great opportunities to deepen and broaden our democracy. We should confidently press ahead with digital means to engage and consult the public.
In addition to widening and improving participation, tech offers a breakthrough for community power through the effective use of data. Public and private agencies – including the social media giants – collect vast amounts of information about places and the way that people use them. This information should all properly belong to the local community itself, and be used to inform decision-making.
These innovations – Community Organising, citizen assemblies, a new data-led approach to local decision-making – are challenging to the traditionalist instinct. Yet it wasn’t much more than a hundred years ago that traditionalists were objecting to representative democracy itself. They objected because they feared that democracy would disrupt the old, organic, natural relationships through which public and expert opinion could be heard, and public and private interests reconciled. They were, in a sense, right. We need to broaden the conversation beyond formal democracy, which of course retains its place as the foundation of political legitimacy but which can be supplemented with old-new models…
In different guises conservatives and Conservatives have argued for two centuries that government should, in Disraeli’s phrase, ‘trust the people’. This is not a call for democratic extremism, a reduction of all power and decision-making to the blunt instrument of a popular majority. Indeed, it is a call for a more nuanced, variegated polity where expertise and professional hierarchy are respected and given voice. But alongside the experts we need the people, who are experts themselves in what they want and need.