Local government is no stranger to turbulence, uncertainty and churn. Nor is it unused to denigration by Westminster elites, of all stripes. Weakened by decades of over-centralisation and marketisation, its position became even more parlous in David Cameron’s ‘age of austerity’. It bore the brunt of public sector cuts, slashed discretionary spend and was forced increasingly into fiscal self-reliance. In 2012, the ‘Barnet graph of doom’ suggested that within a decade, even if they stopped all discretionary spend, many local authorities would not even be able to fund statutory obligations to provide adult social care and children’s services. A recognisable form of full-service municipalism survived the travails of Thatcherism and Blairism, but it did not survive ‘the age of austerity’. Local government soldiered on, but the traditions of ‘municipal England’ are much diminished.
Now the ‘COVID-19 doom’ threatens the very existence of local government, even in this post-municipalist form. The Centre for Progressive Policy warning, that 8 out of 10 first-tier authorities face potential bankruptcy, suggests this is a very real possibility. Should the threat become reality, even on a smaller scale, what might the consequences be? What could local governance look like, if the democratically elected municipality disappeared altogether?
Local governance would certainly survive in some form. The local state has never been fully controlled by local government, and on paper the latter need not exist at all. Government operates through local and regional offices and quangos across myriad functions including benefits, economic development, health services, education and policing. The residual statutory functions of local government could plausibly be re-organised in this way. Nor, on paper, do local authorities require councillors. The residual, post-COVID municipality could be run by a city manager reporting directly to a government minister. It’s therefore eminently possible to envisage a government contemptuous of democratic municipalism allowing the Corona-crisis to do its worst, ushering in a stripped-back post-democratic local state consisting of nothing but quangos, departmental offices, bureaucrats and contractors.
In the face of the silence from the centre on the financial crisis so severely exacerbated by COVID-19, cynics might argue that the government could even welcome the prospect of bringing an end to elected local government. However, such an outcome would be dangerously short-sighted, with significant boomerang effects. Politically, it’s extremely unlikely the fallout would be limited to Labour cities, and outage within Tory shires and districts would cause considerable strife within the Conservative party itself. This would also contradict the government’s 'levelling up' agenda that should, allegedly, address long-standing inequalities in working class areas (many of which are currently Labour-led) by re-empowering local communities. Getting rid of elected local government would also cut against the direction of policy in recent years, calling into question the emphasis on strong leadership, the role and remit of existing devolution deals and new sub-national institutions such as metro-mayors and combined authorities.
A less drastic fix, going with the grain of metropolitanisation, might be a wave of re-organisation, with municipal mergers driving local government upscale. Indeed, recent debates suggest that the devolution White Paper expected in the Autumn might do just this – taking away what’s left of the 'local' in local government, whilst further strengthening the dominance of central government both in policy and political terms.
In any case, dismantling the local state would come at a very high democratic price. If there’s one lesson the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that local government plays a vital role in people’s lives – and elected local politicians are better placed to make decisions that affect the communities they serve than distant apparatuses with little understanding of local circumstances.
To be sure, post-municipalist dystopia is not the only possible outcome. With borrowing rates at historic lows, government has sunk hundreds of billions into propping up the economy. It has subsidised businesses and furloughed workers. It has also directed billions into corporations through juicy Corona-contracts and continued undeterred with big infrastructure projects like HS2. Local government could certainly be saved and might even prosper in a different climate. But this would require profound cultural as well as structural change – starting at the centre. Local leaders have repeatedly shown they’re willing to take a stand for democratic municipalism and have demanded new fiscal arrangements and more power to 'build back better'. However, to transform this slogan into reality, the centre needs to change its position radically, re-investing local government with lost resources, powers and trust rather than spectating, or even planning, its demise.
Jonathan Davies is a member of the Local Governance Research Centre, director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity and professor of critical policy studies at De Montfort University @ProfJSDavies
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University @AriannaGi