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Super-sizing the cities, by Gerry Stoker

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04 March 2005

Beefing up city and county regions might paradoxically be the most effective way of putting the local into 'new localism' in the twenty-first century, argues Gerry Stoker

The basic problem with the local government system in England is that not enough of us really care about what it does. The truth for most voters, most of the time, is that there is not much to care about. In the absence of anything else, we talk up the idea of community leadership as the future of local governance, but we have ducked the changes needed to deliver that role.

Given the failure of the regional devolution agenda, the challenge before us is now greater than ever. If local government is going to be the answer to the devolution question in England, then – to mangle a well-known line from Star Trek – we need people to exclaim: 'It's local government, Jim, but not as we know it.'

We have to reinvent local government for the twenty-first century so that our urban, suburban and rural lifestyles can be sustained. We need a system capable of meeting the challenges and richness of the economic, social and ecological realities for the next quarter of a century. That requires more strategic local government and more community-based local government.

A reformed 'city region' local government built around 'super-size' cities and counties could provide, alongside genuine community-level neighbourhood governance, a distinctive and attractive devolution settlement for England. Getting there might require full-blown reorganisation in the long run but there is also much that can be done in the short run.

The city region concept – which the New Local Government Network this week launched a commission to investigate – needs to be examined in more detail. But its time has come as the need for strategic capacity becomes clear. A key challenge is deciding the basis on which to draw up a city region, but all options fundamentally rest on super-sizing around a core set of towns and cities. In areas without this core, super-size counties might provide the base. Crucially, we need to accept that different systems will suit the circumstances of different parts of England.

A similar flexibility of thought and approach should guide the development of neighbourhood-level governance. In some places, area committees might work, in others more ad hoc opportunities for community control over local institutions might be appropriate.

In the long run, a full-scale reorganisation could be attempted. It was in the 1960s when we last sat down and really tried to think through the role and organisation of local government. Since then, reorganisation has been a classic example of 'how not to do it', boiling down to a beauty contest driven by public opinion surveys about which tier of government people liked best.

Before any realignment of local government institutions takes place, we need to ask what local government is for. Its main aim must be to create the conditions for sustainable communities. But that's a big job with some vital functions connected to it, each of which would give concrete expression to community leadership. These can be divided into six areas:

  • transport and mobility – ensuring effective public and private transport management
  • employment – creating the conditions for employability through childcare, training programmes and economic regeneration
  • safety – defending citizens from crime, protecting them from disasters, and helping to see that justice is done in the community
  • environment – taking responsibility for the management of the local environment from everyday maintenance through physical development to long-term ecological health
  • inclusion – enabling the community to give shape to its ambitions, reconcile interests and promote its concerns; as well as helping people maintain a healthy lifestyle and giving their children the best possible start
  • cohesion – helping maintain the cohesiveness of the community and, at the same time, support the cultural identity and civic capacity of the many groups and distinct cultures in an area.

These functions provide an indicative rather than definitive list – a way of making local authorities' role as 'community leaders' more tangible to the public. Of course, more detailed investigation and analysis will be needed to clarify them.

Two other guidelines should apply. Local government should do what it can to make communities feel more confident about governing themselves. There should also be a sustained commitment to improve responsiveness and productivity in local provision of services.

Sir Peter Gershon has identified ways of saving money through better procurement; better back-office management of support services to frontline staff; the use of IT to lower transaction costs in government – and between government and citizen; streamlined regulation; and better evidence to drive policy choices. The fundamental assumption is that the rationale for government at all levels is to be a client – choosing the level and quality of service – as well as a market maker, ie, ensuring that a marketplace of providers exists and that competition is fair and quality assured.

Local authorities might also be direct providers (indeed, this might be necessary to ensure the effective dynamic of the market). Achieving greater efficiency means building on our current mixed economy of provision, with an enhanced role for private companies and voluntary organisations.

Crucial to the argument is that the functions identified are appropriate to the particular character of territorial government in the twenty-first century. People expect local or regional government to be given responsibility for major services such as health care, school education and housing provision. Having control of big spending and employment functions is seen as an expression of strong territorial government. My aim is to see local government given a core set of activities that make sense for it to run and oversee as a territorial agency. The focus is on making it strategically central to our governance system and the development of local communities.

The responsibilities outlined would create institutions that could grab public attention. The functions based around transport co-ordination, training and employment, environmental management and sustainability, economic regeneration and inclusion tackle some major public concerns.

Plainly, in all those areas, local government would have to fit in with what the other levels of government are doing. But, for example, the environmental role would stretch from a concern with clean neighbourhoods to tackling the need for greater sustainability in the way our towns and cities are run. The crime and justice agenda would be focused not just on low-level crime but also on restorative justice, community healing and effective police accountability.

To focus on these responsibilities, local government would have to give up some of its current functions, such as the direct running of libraries, leisure centres and housing management. Territorial government – and in particular local government – is not the right body to exercise those roles. There are many ways in which these functions could, and indeed are, managed.

One option is through public interest companies (PICs) operating at either a neighbourhood, city, metropolitan or regional level. Stakeholders with a direct and specific concern could be incorporated into running the PIC, through membership of the controlling board or through an advisory council of users.

The suggested reforms also imply going with the grain of the changing role of local authorities with respect to school education, and social services for children and the elderly. These are specialist services where issues of national priorities, equity support and national-level lesson learning have gained prominence and considerable official and public backing. Territorial government would have a role in relation to these services – one, however, of challenge and scrutiny, not direct funding and control.

To deliver the six roles, the powers and capacities of local government will need to be enhanced and its oversight and influence over other bodies operating in localities increased. A detailed investigation will be required to reveal exactly what will be needed. Financial freedoms will be crucial, as will the power to intervene and hold others to account.

The local government system that emerges will have to be very different in purpose, control over resources and style of politics if it is to be a sufficiently plausible idea to put before a sceptical public. It will be a local government that works in co-operation and alongside other bodies, some of which might be subject to control though direct election as well.

New localism is not just a matter of individual opportunities to run services or make choices, although both are important. It is also about creating systems of representative devolved government in reach of local people, which they can relate to, influence and rely on to deliver the collective decisions central to the quality of their lives.

The greatest empowerment of all is a system of governance that makes life easier, more liveable and more full of potential. Running things yourself and making choices can be fulfilling. Having things run for you in a way that enables you to live your life can be even more rewarding.

A local government able to exercise oversight and influence over the core ingredients of the local environment would be an empowering institution, and one that people would care about.

Gerry Stoker is professor of political science at Manchester University and a trustee of the New Local Government Network. His pamphlet What is local government for? is published by NLGN and available, price £11.25 (inc p&p) from info@nlgn.org.uk

PFmar2005

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