System reset required: go to settings

By Paul O'Brien | 21 July 2021
  • Paul O'Brien

Local government across the UK faces some of its biggest economic, political, and social challenges since the immediate post-war era. The past decade of austerity has also seen slow economic growth and multiple crises: of housing, care for older people, climate change and health, gender and race inequalities. The pandemic has amplified such inequalities, putting increasing demands on already stretched local authorities.

The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) Local Government Commission 2030 was tasked with creating a vision for the future of local government over the next decade, one that equipped councils with the roles, capabilities and resources to address the challenges facing local communities. Over 18 months it sought evidence from across the UK, engaging in a dialogue with witnesses from councils, national organisations, trade unions, voluntary sector organisations, industry, Government bodies, think-tanks and academics. With each evidence-gathering session, it was apparent to the commissioners that the dominant centralising tradition of UK politics was failing local government.

Addressing the policy challenges facing local councils required not a piecemeal approach, across different policy sectors, but an overhaul of central-local relations.

The knowledge of local circumstances is integral to finding solutions to the messy issues of policy and governance, but often it is constrained and hampered by an overbearing centre.

A misplaced faith in centralised systems

What has gone wrong? Why are councils not trusted to get on with the job? The answer can be found in a complex web of problems, rooted in administrations across the UK attempting to manage problems from afar; problems which need the rich local knowledge of people and places to resolve.

Decades of centralisation by successive governments has resulted in the roles, powers and resources to councils being systematically stripped away. In short, there has been a misplaced faith in the capacity of central governments to deliver on its own resolutions for local problems.

The principle of local by default

Within this context our Commission found one of our clear and overriding recommendations: in order to change course we need to reset the system of governance in the UK. This means an end to centralisation, putting in place a collaborative system of governance that shifts powers and decision-making to a local level.

The Commission finds that rather than the current system of powers held centrally, or occasionally, regionally, powers and responsibilities should sit at the local level, unless there is clear evidence and sound reasoning to suggest otherwise. In other words, local by default is the starting point, turning on its head the current system which locks in centralisation as the factory setting for Government.

Is revitalising local government a matter of constitutional protection? While arguing for a system reset, this will be of little use if, in the longer-term, protocols in the settings can be changed at the whim of future Government administrations. After all, we have had decades of policy flips from compulsory competitive tendering to best value, through to efficiencies and austerity – all have brought a differing view on the role of local councils – from that of simply a delivery agent for local public services, to a much more interventionist role as stewards of place.

How do we know the system reset we are calling for will not be wiped or changed? To protect the role of councils the Commission argues local government’s role, and the powers it holds, must be enshrined with a new constitutional settlement for local government. This would rebalance the fractious relationship between the centre and the local, allowing for mature decision- making, empowering new collaborations and addressing the damaging juridification of centre-local relations that has been a feature of the system for decades.

This constitutional settlement would provide the basis for a much clearer devolution settlement, with the foundations allowing for the principles of subsidiarity, local autonomy, and flexibility, underpinned by effective governance between the different spheres of government and institutions.

It has to be accompanied by an immediate restabilising of local government finance, as well as certainty over future finances and income-raising powers for local councils. Equally, resources and powers to tackle the big messy public policy issues, to reinvigorate local democracy, and to support a diverse workforce, reflective of the communities it seeks to serve, must be part of this new broad constitutional settlement.

Navigating the reset

As the Commission explored the art of the possible with a focus on 2030, we asked how we can achieve this system reset.

The Commission is calling for a number of phases to reform. On the one hand, there is merit in a ‘big bang’ approach to change, such as the establishment of a Royal Commission on Local Governance or a Constitutional Convention, building the essential ingredients of cross-party support for change.

A more incremental approach could be through establishing representative National Governance Committees across the nations of the UK, to roll out further devolution and a programme of reform aided by sympathetic ministers. Given the complexity of such a system change the Commission believes that using the two approaches in tandem would provide an immediate catalyst for urgent reforms alongside a pathway for more deliberative approaches to solutions.

Whichever approach we take, the system reset needs to happen to avoid a system failure. We need to move to change the settings now.

The APSE Local Government 2030 Commission

Chair of the Commission: Paul O’Brien

Commissioners: Lord Gary Porter CBE, Elma Murray OBE, Jon Collins, Heather Wakefield and Neil Schneider

Commission Executive: Professor Steven Griggs, Professor in public policy, De Montfort University, Dr Arianna Giovannini, associate Professor (reader) in local politics, De Montfort University and Neil Barnett, Leeds Beckett University

Paul O’Brien is chair of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) Local Government Commission


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