One thing that unites readers of this magazine is the fact we probably spend more time thinking about local government than other people. We are familiar with the challenges faced by councils adapting to diminished resources, reduced capacity and increasing and changing demand for key services.
We experience these stories in our own practice and we find them spread out across the pages of this publication week in, week out. Yet this very familiarity can blind us to a real mystery – why don’t people care more?
Local government has seen its funding from central Government cut by an average of 40% over the last nine years. Any Government that cuts NHS funding by anything like that amount would be committing political suicide. If we were told we didn’t know on what basis schools or hospitals would be funded in 18 months’ time there would be public outrage. Yet uncertainty about the local government finding system elicits barely a murmur.
We have seen vehement local protests against individual decisions by councils, but we have seen very limited public support for the sector as a whole and what anger we have seen has been directed at councils rather than on their behalf.
Why is this? Are the services local government provides seen as less important? It seems unlikely when those services include care for the elderly, protection of vulnerable children, clean streets and waste collection, planning and housing – not to mention libraries, parks, leisure centres or parking. These are the things that matter most within communities and in our everyday lives.
So why don’t people care more about the fate of local government? In part, I think, it is because of how we have allowed local government to be portrayed. We know councils are much more than administrative arms of the state delivering local services; they are democratically-elected bodies that at their best, provide an institutional framework through which to express the priorities and aspirations of the communities they serve.
But that is not how we generally talk about local authorities. Central Government treats local government as a subsidiary and dismisses elected councillors as volunteers. The national media focuses solely on the ‘drama’ of Westminster politics so that people are not aware of how much is actually decided locally.
Portrayals of councils in culture from West Riding to Our Friends in the North; from JK Rowling’s, The Casual Vacancy, to Coronation Street all treat local government as venal, corrupt or petty. And the sector itself, after decades of public management mantras, has been guilty of speaking about itself in overly technocratic terms.
So, is it any wonder no one speaks up for local government because we have too often allowed councils to be caricatured as tinpot little local bureaucracies, when in fact they are one of the most efficient and innovative parts of the public sector? They are also one of the most accountable parts of the system that has full democratic legitimacy and is answerable ward by ward to local people. Yet we have allowed them to be treated as simple adjuncts to national Government.
The way we talk about things and the stories we tell really matter. I’ve often written of an ambition to reclaim the word ‘municipal’, to free it from its dreary connotations of concrete, multi-storey car parks and faceless bureaucracy and restore to it the civic energy which brought us education for the masses, clean water and sanitation, and the biggest increases in public health and life expectancy this country has ever seen. That ambition remains unrealised, but it may be more important than ever.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit