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September 2021
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Getting Localism Right

Paul Connolly

Paul Connolly

Localism: seen by many as the answer to almost every local government question.

With good reason. Councils are close to the communities they serve. They are more immediately accountable to citizens than Whitehall departments, able to respond faster to what communities want.

And localism has the wind in its sails, as evidenced by recent announcements that Manchester will get a new Mayor and Executive to control much of its local public sector, including NHS spend. Yet localist theory should be tested to the limits, not least by its adherents. We all want to get localism right. This means ensuring the theory can survive the following challenges in practice:

Cuts – Because of spending protections in other parts of the public sector, councils have suffered disproportionate pain in the initial phase of deficit reduction. And actually they have done well, reorganising back office and support services, collaborating with each other and across sectors to secure more for less. But deeper cuts are expected in the next Parliament. On current projections central government grants to local authorities will disappear by 2020, leaving many councils, especially in deprived areas, in dire straits. This may require rather more than just localist solutions.

Capacity – Many local leaders want radical devolution. But while a Manchester, benefiting from a decade of collaboration with neighbouring authorities, has the institutional muscle to manage a range of new obligations, it is questionable whether all councils, including many covering less clearly definable ‘places’ than Manchester, have the necessary infrastructure. Devolution must be accompanied by considerable transfer of money, but also of skills and capacity.

Then there is Control. Where capacity or the “identity” of a place make devolution challenging, giving responsibility for the service to another agency, to a regional or national body, might also make operational and financial sense. Indeed, some current local responsibilities, such as those concerning business regulation, may suit more national or regional delivery structure. Such structures do not necessarily mean an end to local accountability. National delivery bodies can easily develop local arms with local governance structures. Indeed, the assumption that local council service control guarantees local accountability is misleading. Low local election turnout undermines the case. While localists argue that transferring more services to local authorities would animate voters, many services already administered by local councils – aspects of social care, for example – have little bearing on local election outcomes. But they are hugely important to users. Giving councils control is not the same as giving people control.

The critical concept here is Community. Councils have evolved over time, through different reorganisations and initiatives. Their identities often relate to recognisable communities. But sometimes they don’t. Councils can have odd names and odder boundaries. And they are geographically static. People, however, are not. In the Digital Age, they are especially mobile, forming fluid communities that relate imperfectly to the geographies of UK governance.

Importantly, there is also the challenge of Coherence. Localism is a ‘let many flowers bloom’ philosophy of difference. Quite. Places are different. But the local responses to austerity evidence both rational (and accountable) variations and unaccountable, preventable incoherence. This is understandable. There is no shared understanding of local government’s proper scope and responsibilities. Even informed commentators would struggle to define their council’s remit, especially in two-tier areas. Recent experimentation and innovation in local governance and delivery are welcome. But they have brought their own uncertainties.  Councils’ scope, structure and purpose, what they are really suited to and what they are ill-adapted for: there is little unanimity on these questions.

The Management Consultancies Association’s report recommends a conference, early in the next Parliament, to examine what councils are, what they should do, what their limits are, and what works best from the perspective of citizens. Comprising representatives from civil society, as well as local and central government, the conference would develop common principles against which the validity of Manchester-style devolution proposals, as well as different approaches (shared services, regionalisation or national organisation) could be tested. The Independent Commission on Local Government has recommended a review of whether councils have the resources to meet their statutory responsibilities. It is easy to see how this could be linked to a fundamental assessment of what councils are for – and what they should be for.

Indeed, the real test of localism is Citizens: what benefits them. Our report suggests that if communities are better placed to deliver services themselves, they should. New ‘free services’ could be developed by communities – of place, but also of interest, in line with how people live in the Digital Age.

Localism remains the most comprehensive answer to local government’s current challenges. But it should be based on a better understanding of what councils are for. In an era of scarcity, providing that clarity is now urgent.

Author, Paul Connolly, is Director of the MCA Think Tank.

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