At the recent MJ Future Forum the top question on the lines, between the lines, and sometimes hanging in the Zoom like a bad smell, was ‘why doesn’t central government “get’” local government?’. These are some reasons that I hear a lot of the time:
1. What they do is relatively peripheral to the breadth of my day job
2. There are so many of them, and they're all so different - different sizes, different local issues
3. The ones I hear from at conferences and occasionally read about are awesome but the others... I can't trust them to deliver
4. Because they are sovereign organisations with their own accountability I can’t control them, it’s better to solve problems in ways where I do have direct control
5. They are really broke - they don’t have much resource to align with my issue and I worry that if I give them some it will get diverted to other things
6. I understand that theoretically they could be part of the solution...
7. … but actually I don't really know what they do and honestly I’m so busy that I don't feel inclined to learn
I hear these reasons a lot of the time, but I don’t hear them in relation to central and local government, I do hear them when council chiefs explain to me why they don’t do much with their local - town, parish, community - councils. Why they prefer to set up neighbourhood fora instead, for example, or delegate relationships to quite a junior officer. Go back and read the list again, through this new lens.
What would a more benevolent and relatively well resourced tier of government do for its multiple more local brothers and sisters? It would use its powers to ensure that their structures were fit for purpose and viable. It would encourage experimentation with the more able, would invest in capacity-building for those less able but keen to develop, and would work around those unable and unwilling to cooperate. There would be regular staff movement for better understanding and generally there would be an asset-based view, looking for strengths.
Did you know that through their professional society town and parish clerks are able to study a special dedicated curriculum on community governance to degree level - with a masters programme being launched next year? Did you know that there is a voluntary - independently assessed - progression scheme for local councils who want to develop their capacity? If you are lucky enough to have local councils in your area, do you know which of them are assessed as Quality Gold? Some councils are very good at this: Bradford, Milton Keynes and South Lakeland to name a random three, and the Local Government Association does provide some support.
So what might we learn from this for the central/local relationship? Well from my list of seven points perhaps central government’s attitudes are actually a bit rational. Maybe we need to help central government learn from the example of our colleagues who have tackled their own localism issues? And maybe, just maybe, we should lead by example?
Jonathan Flowers is the independent chair of the Improvement and Development Board for Local Councils, an unfunded body which brings together all key stakeholder groups to coordinate improvement in the sector.