What is local government for?

4 Nov 19

Councils must be at the centre of efforts to engage with local communities and restore public trust

Parliament was in disarray. Its members were caught between fleeing from the chamber and locking themselves in committee rooms.  Serious discussions were held about relocating parliament from London.  The year was 1858, and the cause of the commotion was the Great Stink.

In the 1850s the Thames was full of effluent and parliamentary debates were continually disturbed by the awful smell from the river.  At the time, Charles Dickens described the Thames as “a deadly sewer”, and by 1858, parliament’s curtains were drenched in lime chloride in an attempt to drown the appalling odour. 
In the 1850s some 2.7 million people lived in London.  Most lived in homes that had their own cesspool.  And ironically, the rapid development of sewers actually made the situation worse.  The master builder Thomas Cubitt wrote that “scarcely any person thinks of making a cesspool, but it is carried off at once into the river.  The Thames is now made a great cesspool instead of each person having their own.”  Private interest was creating public squalor. Investment in public infrastructure was desperately required; investment in new public goods for the broader common benefit.

The parliamentary response to the Great Stink, together with the discovery that cholera, which had regularly swept through London since the early 1830s, was a waterborne disease, provided the impetus for a major restructuring of local government in the capital and massive investment in sanitation and sewers projects under civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette. 

Public investment was urgently needed to remedy the serious health problems generated by the blinkered pursuit of private interests. However, the 1850s challenge to clean the Thames is but nothing to the current challenge to halt and reverse the gathering global ecological crisis. 

Wiser not leaner
Of course the interplay between the actions of the state and the operations of the market is not just seen in the case of London’s Victorian sewers.  It can be seen in the 21st-century banking and financial services sector, and in the public financing of local public services as diverse as libraries and policing. Indeed, it can be argued that the state (including the local state) is itself a public good.  As the economic historian Robert Skidelsky has argued: “The community invests in the state by paying taxes.  How much tax people are willing to pay is a reasonably reliable indicator of how much they think the state is worth.”  

Citizens pay their taxes to help local government finance and deliver an array of essential public goods that private markets do not, can not and will not provide. These goods include, in addition to building common infrastructure and delivering vital welfare services, the costs of regulating competition in private markets, as well as the costs of sponsoring cooperation in civil society.

But when we think about the future of local government it is important that we look back to the foundational roles of the state: reducing public harm and delivering public goods. For several decades these classic purposes have been overlooked.  Instead, new public management (NPM) and government-induced austerity programmes have dominated public policy in the UK. The focus has been on making government services leaner when the emphasis should be on making them wiser.


‘It is essential that the public has reliable assurance about how local bodies use and account for their money’


New public management emerged in the 1980s, driven by a perceived need to promote quasi-market models, commercial disciplines and the injection of private-sector practices into government services.  In the UK this began with enforced competition, outsourcing and customer charters, followed by the “deliverology” of centralised performance reporting and a battery of managerial techniques.  Some of these techniques improved the service user orientation and the cost-effectiveness of government services. But unwelcome and adverse consequences also occurred.

More recently, public policy has been becalmed by the widespread adoption of a model of government developed in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crash, focusing on how best to achieve reductions in government debt and deficits.  The policy was fiscal consolidation; the result was austerity.  Actions to reduce spending were driven by the assumption that government is replete with inefficiencies, waste and duplication.  From this it follows that substantial reductions in costs can be achieved with only marginal impacts on effectiveness.

Of course, there are instances where the mantra ‘the same or more can be achieved from less’ holds true, but it is not universally so.  For example, the digital transformation of services undoubtedly offers the prospect of substantial change to the cost of service delivery.  But even in this area, the techno-utopianism of the early 2000s has been blunted by the costly and emerging darker side of the digital economy.  

Together the twin pillars of NPM and austerity thinking have twisted our approach to public goods.  We need to bend our thinking back into shape.  Of course, cost reduction and productivity improvement approaches are vital in shaping the future of public goods.  Doing things more cost-effectively so as to save money for the taxpayer is important.  But lowering the cost of government is a means, not an end in itself.  It focuses our attention more on the “how”, and less on the “why”.  Of course we need to focus on how to make government services cost less.  But an overly narrow focus on cost can be self-defeating; it can divert us from attending to the “why” of re-imagining public purposes for the new age.  

Throughout the past decade there has been no attempt to provide evidence that local government is any less efficient than other parts of the public sector. Nor has there been any attempt to show that reductions in local government services generate less harm to the public at large.  Nonetheless, over this period local government service spending received the largest proportionate reductions in core funding.  In this area, at least, the once vaunted evidence-based approach to public policymaking was shown to be an approach to which successive governments have been only rhetorically attached.  
The recent easing of fiscal consolidation (the so-called “end of austerity”) is a highly welcome turn of policy.  But this is just the small beginning of a much needed change in direction.  It’s at moments like these that we need to return to first principles and re-examine our spending priorities.  What is local government for, and how do our investments and services deliver new purposes?  

A new community model 
As the policy regimes of NPM and austerity begin to fade, what is to replace them in local government?  The focus on resourcing our services has deflected us from our goals and ambitions as a sector.  Since the 1980s the emphasis has been on the management side of local government and how it needs to improve its overall competence.  And the need to improve is unlikely to lessen if the gap widens between citizens’ experience of public services and their experience of privately purchased services.  There will also be real pressure to examine the core functions of local government and to reinvent the style and substance of its political and community leadership.  The long-run future of local government stewardship of social care (of both adults and children) is bound to be questioned, given the variety of service outcomes nationally and the critical importance of these services to the lives of our most vulnerable residents. 
But it’s the role of councils as vehicles for community self-governance that may receive the most attention.  In its recent report, the New Local Government Network suggests a new community model for local government.  It rightly argues that a transactional approach to designing and delivering services produces passive service recipients.  Instead it suggests a new style of operating where councils collaborate actively with people as partners. The report is more a compass than a route map.  But at least it points in the right direction, by emphasising the importance of community and the question of power.

Power is at the centre of our national political debate: who has it; who wields it; and for whom is it exercised?  In our heavily centralised state we talk of devolving power.  But devolving what. And what for?  In local government we regularly argue for “freedom from” government strictures and controls, but we rarely say what we want the “freedom for”. 

In a powerful account of how change happens, international development expert Duncan Green explains that there are four paths to power:

  • Power over: to dominate and subordinate others 
  • Power to: to mobilise resources and act autonomously 
  • Power with: to share and collaborate with others 
  • Power within: to build one’s internal capabilities and confidence to act


‘It’s at moments like these that we need to return to first principles and re-examine our spending priorities’


Local government traditionally spends too much of its energies on “power over” and “power to”.  And this criticism applies to politicians and professionals alike.  The democratic legitimacy of elected politicians is real but fragile.  And the expertise to which many public service professionals cling is no longer a sign of their comparative good judgment, nor is it a source of deference towards them.  That is why the next two decades must involve expanding the circle of power – of the “power with” and the “power within”.
The first obvious step in expanding “power with” involves reshaping how elected members work with and alongside their communities.  Representative democracy is under enormous pressure nationally.  It is creaking at the seams.  The rapid rise and spread of the digital information age has fractured the political reality.  As media analyst Martin Gurri has argued: “People from nowhere, free of institutional entanglements, pushed the elites out of the strategic heights of the information sphere.  Almost immediately, great institutions in every domain of human activity began to bleed authority. It is no surprise therefore, that a recent comprehensive review of trust shows that the public’s trust and confidence in parliaments, governments and political parties is severely depressed in many countries, including the UK. 
But similar challenges are faced locally.  The fractured relationships between the public and local government are real and as potentially damaging as that faced by national government.  Proximity is no guarantee of connectedness nor favoured status.   At their best, councils curate the future of their localities for the better and focus on solving local problems in consultation with local people.  This means they have to get people together and help them engage with each other in a spirit of creative dialogue and deliberation.  Listening deeply and attentively to lots of diverse voices tends to lead to pragmatic pluralism.  That’s why local government is potentially at the vanguard of reconciling the country’s current divisions.  

Councils in Northern Ireland are leading the way.  In the context of ever changing sectarian divides they continue to seek progress in the civic realm, despite the fact that people strongly differ about what should be done.   Simple invocations for unity are not enough. The arithmetic of politics may work in parliaments and council chambers; it seldom works in diverse or divided communities.  That is why councils need to cultivate civility and civic responsibility.  But they can only do this if civic literacy is high and civic activism is encouraged.  Open-minded and open-hearted civic dialogue in localities may begin to reconcile and help resolve people’s differences. Agreeing to disagree peacefully is the start of moving forward together.  Leaving space for disagreement and dissent is essential, while the goal of achieving unity is probably for the birds. 


‘We are approaching a major point of inflection for our politics, our governments and our communities’


The second step involves helping people and communities develop their “power within”.  Power is not a service transaction but a potentiality we each possess.  Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish eco-activist, has enormous power, far exceeding most of that possessed by the world’s environment secretaries.  Of course she is not re-allocating resources in the here and now, but she is grasping our attention and reframing mindsets.  Something that most leaders would dearly wish to be able to do.  Structured and systems approaches to change minimise the important role of individuals and small groups in generating large-scale change.  The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is alleged to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We are approaching a major point of inflection for our politics, our governments and our communities.  Unlike in 1858, the disarray of our current parliament does not spring from the rising odour of the Thames but the collapsing order in our times.  This collapse is driven by the digital information age, the confusions of truths, half-truths and mistruths it produces, and the peculiar mix of utopian hopes, despair and rage it encompasses.  In so many ways this collapse is healthy because it reflects a more equal and expressive society.  A society that leads itself and doesn’t simply follow its leaders.  Perhaps our parliament disagrees because we disagree.  Our hope must be that our disagreements are strengthening our democratic impulse.  That they are enlivening our civic dialogue and educating us about how, as citizens, we should conduct ourselves in the 21st century. 

Local government is special because it is anchored in places.  And places really matter to people.  Places offer a sense of personal attachment, belonging and identity.  They offer memories of one’s past and personal journey, and offer hope for one’s future.  Locality is where we live, work, learn and grow.  Our connection with others starts in everyday dialogue at the local level.  Unless local government becomes brilliant at enabling this local dialogue and deepening our democratic practice, all of our other minor and major successes will count for nothing. 

Barry Quirk is chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council

  • Barry Quirk

    Barry Quirk is chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council

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