Does anyone have a positive vision for the future of local government?

The under-funded sector awaits what the new Secretary of State Gove has to say in terms of policy, but the rebranding of the department into something with far too many syllables doesn’t bode well

Now The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Which is a rubbish acronym. Let’s face it, they all were.

Departments and ministries with such long names like the above seldom last long, and get restructured and/or renamed sooner rather than later. At some stage over the next decade or so, the crises that will hit us is going to increase demands for an overhaul of our political system – even more so in the face of the widely-reported abuses by the present administration.

“A Royal Commission on Local Government for England – we’ve had one of those before haven’t we?”

Yes – and we’re long over due one – the last one being around 50 years ago. Even now, the House of Commons Public Administration & Constitution Committee is still examining the issues.

“Reform of governance in England has been touted for decades only to see proposals gunned down or diluted amidst fierce opposition, or only implemented partially. “

PACAC Committee – preamble to evidence from Mayor Tracy Brabin of West Yorkshire.

Which is why given where we are with our multiple crises, even a 2 year commission (which is short for these things) might be enough to inform the public and political parties in the run up to the next general election.

The latest in-depth report – no place left behind

Rose Grayston led the team on this in depth report full of substantive policy recommendations.

You can read the report – the work of a number of different organisations from across the political matrix here.

One striking paragraph in the introduction is this:

“The sorry fact that far too many places feel left behind is also a legacy of post-war urban design, poor planning, centralised decision-making and under-investment in the social infrastructure that is so vital to local communities”

No Place Left Behind – p10

I’m sure many of us can think of examples of now dated post-war urban design, centralised decision making, and the devastating legacy of austerity and under-investment. The underinvestment in Cambridge in our social infrastructure – and the closure of music venues in the 1970s & 1980s literally led to a riot that forced the hand of reluctant politicians to find the money for a new venue – The Junction. But the complaints were not new. 20 years before those riots, residents in the new housing development at Arbury were complaining in the local newspapers about the lack of social infrastructure. There is one phrase from that article on Arbury that still haunts me:

“If the Government’s Department for Education and Science gave permission for the new building to be included in the 1966-67 financial schemes it would be basically similar to the East Barnwell Centre.”

Cambridge News, 25 March 1965

On what planet did Central Government need to have a list of small schemes in local council areas that it would or would not fund? My point on over-centralisation. But then the economy was being managed in a manner that would have been unthinkable up until the pandemic. Prices and incomes controls, exchange controls on the movements of foreign currencies, Chancellors of the Exchequer setting interest rates, causing them to fall artificially just before a general election to get a ‘pre-election boom’ in time for voting – only to have to choke the boom off shortly after because inflation had gotten out of control. Again.

Do ministers and shadow ministers of any party dare trust local councils with much greater and wider revenue-raising powers?

The Conservatives certainly don’t. If they did, they’d have devolved much greater financial freedoms to local councils similar to what other countries have. If you go by the limited financial freedoms that Scotland and Wales have, you can argue similar.

The problem that advocates for local government face is that those in Central Government do not want to run the risk of far-left finance chiefs in charge of every other town hall budget across the country, bringing in what they would see as punitive tax bills on the wealthy to pay for the ‘PC-nonsense schemes, foibles and pet projects of town hall barons.’ It was in the face of such headlines that the Thatcher Government was able to shut down the old Greater London Authority, on which a young Cllr Lewis Herbert started out his political career.

30 years after the above photograph was taken, Cllr Herbert beat off a challenge from political titans such as Puffles the Dragon Fairy to hold onto his Coleridge seat at the Cambridge City Council elections, and taking control of the council for Labour for the first time since the 1990s.

Above – Cllr Lewis Herbert with Puffles – the only candidate he faced at a public hustings that year. Sadly one of our fellow opponents on the ballot paper, Sam Barker for the Conservatives, passed away four years later in 2018. He was only 36 years old. Our Liberal Democrat opponent at that election left under something of a cloud shortly after being elected in Trumpington a few years later – involving then Local Democracy Reporter Josh Thomas having to go up to Scotland to door-step him to find out what was happening.

“Cuddly toys as candidates? Disappearing Donald? It’s hardly the stuff to make ministers want to give more power to local councils!”

This was something put to me by one of the radio reporters at the time – and it exposes a ‘chicken and egg’ tension (even though we all know that eggs came long before chickens in the evolutionary timeline of life on earth – a scientist in Cambridge reminded me of this piece of GCSE biology from the mid-1990s). You have to reconcile the following:

  • Individuals new to politics finding out that the amount of effort you have to put into local democracy for very little return does not feel like a valuable use of time
  • Activists finding out that the intellectual capacity you need to be able to process the information alongside having the time available, is exhausting. (See Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) – who has a degree from Cambridge, here).
  • The public seeing relatively little difference in the delivery of public services irrespective of who controls the councils (unless bin collections are messed up)
  • Low engagement at elections (2021 being a massive exception in Cambridge) combined with low turnout

Ministers then look at examples of the above, and then see things like what happened in Liverpool, where ministers felt compelled to send in external commissioners to overhaul the council. Despite the continued negative headlines, Liverpool Labour still won 22 of the 31 seats available in the local elections this year, even though they won less than half of the popular vote. Hence calls from their political opponents on the progressive side of politics (mainly The Liberal Democrats and The Greens) to call for Proportional Representation – an issue that has come up again as the Conservatives in Government have tabled a bill to deliver a controversial manifesto commitment changing the voting system for the Police & Crime Commissioners, & Metro Mayors, to a First-Past-The-Post system that, had it been used in this year’s elections would have kept Mr Palmer in post as Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

“What can Gove expect from The Treasury?”

Not much.

Not least because The Treasury has been working for ages on a new longer term spending plan, with bid submitted by the pre-reshuffle secretaries of state. Any civil servant with Whitehall experience will tell you that such reshuffles can be a huge disruption for ministries because new ministers seldom follow the lead given by their predecessors. All too often it can feel like a change of government altogether. And I worked through both changes of ministers and changes of prime ministers both within the same party and also following a general election leading to a change of parties in government. Let’s also note that the current Chancellor Mr Sunak only took up the post because his predecessor Mr Javid refused to have the Prime Minister have a veto over who is political advisers should be. 18 months later and Mr Javid is back in Cabinet as Health Secretary following the resignation of the now ‘disgraced Matt Hancock‘.

All of the above matters because…of the centralisation issue.

One of the many problems over-centralisation brings is paralysis in decision-making down the line. This is because everyone is waiting for permission from someone else in order to cover their backs. With the decline of the print press – in particular the local newspapers, the whole PR argument for having a succession of junior ministers running their own pet projects with grant funding and a team of civil servants to administer it makes less and less sense. One of the more interesting parts of being a civil servant working on a ministerial priority area were ministerial visits – you got to go out and about either with the minister or on behalf of a minister and unless you were delivering bad news, you got to meet lots of really interesting people. Well…I did anyway. Also you ended up listening lots. I was the proverbial sponge. At the same time I was beginning to figure out for myself that a whole host of decisions my office was being asked to make, or that I was asked to give a recommendation on, were things that really should be handled at a local level, and not by someone like me in Whitehall.

Which brings us nicely back to Rose Grayston’s report

Have a look through the policy recommendations on pages 10-14.

Whenever someone is proposing a new policy that involves ministers doing something, and let’s say you have been convinced by the evidence base and the argument of the person making the case, the first two questions to ask are:

  1. Does the minister responsible have the budget to deliver what is being asked?
  2. Does the minister have the legal powers to do what is being asked?

All of this assumes that you (or someone competent) has:

  • Stress-tested the assumptions that the proposals are based on
  • Undertaken a very high level policy risk assessment asking: “How can this all possibly go badly wrong?” …and coming up with responses that can be mitigated.

A quick browse through the proposals and you can already see that the answers to 1) and 2) are *No*. (The transport policies: “Policy proposal ix: commit to providing light rapid transit systems for all cities and larger towns in England” – the cost of this in normal times would require a substantial tax rise from somewhere, plus large borrowing possibly through a bond issue over an extended period of time; and “Policy proposal xv: legalise the use of
private e-scooters on public roads”
– legalising anything automatically requires new legislation.)

Furthermore, the policy ask from Ms Grayston and her fellow authors cut across a number of Government Departments, so if these proposals were to be worked up into a Government White Paper – a formal statement of Government policy and proposed actions, it would need some serious cross-departmental working involving a highly talented and well-resourced civil service team, along with a clutch of competent and intellectually-curious ministers prepared to defend the proposals in public.

“Anything major that’s missing?”

This would be something that is so big that it would need its own separate policy paper. It’s the overhaul of local government in England to enable the sound public administration and governance to deliver all of the proposals in that policy paper. As things stand, the current structure of local government in England is a mess. It is not fit for purpose to deliver what the present age demands of it.

The other thing that is missing is what some in the trade used to call ‘capacity building’ – training up communities and organisations to carry out the roles and functions that the policies require of them. But the way we live and the way society is structured simply does not allow for that. Whether it’s the huge levels of debt so many of us find ourselves in – mortgage, university-era debts, consumer spending, you name it. With the massive imbalance of wages/salaries to house prices, rents, and costs of living, who has the time to do the ‘soft’ work of taking part in civic life and voluntary work *to the extent that they can make informed decisions*? Remembering that in 2 weeks time, Cambridge City Council’s Planning & Transport Scrutiny Committee has to debate over 10,000 pages of local plan documents before voting on it. The average social science or humanities Masters Degree thesis has a word count of around 10,000 words, a doctorate around 100,000 words. (Someone at university told me years ago so it must be true.) So if you did a back-of-an-envelope calculation of the number of words per A4 page and multiplied them by those 10,000 pages, that’s quite a few Ph.D theses to be wading through before deciding how to vote. See my point about intellectual capacity? Hence asking how the emerging local plan can be broken down and presented in a manner that will make it much more accessible to a broader range of the public.

Anyway, my brain is already tired from just thinking about all this. Have a browse through the No Place Left Behind report, and focus on the subject area that interests you the most. Then think about how the recommendations might apply to where you live.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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