Local leadership and the bigger picture
All posts from: July 2010
I love it when my work and the rest of my life overlap. This seems to be happening more and more, as behaviour change is taken increasingly seriously by local government. More than ever, councils need to be aware of their role creating new ‘social norms’ that are more sustainable, resilient and co-operative than has become usual in many places. We can do this: from behavioural psychology, experiments and pilots, we have evidence about what works; and we know that, as a species, we are intensely social, though much of our politics and discourse has tried to conceal this over recent decades.
And here’s a real example of establishing new social norms that one or two million people took part in at the weekend: the Big Lunch. My street held its first street party for decades, under the Big Lunch banner, the day before the Prime Minister launched the Big Society project with four local authorities. I think that my Big Lunch experience confirmed Mr Cameron’s point about people needing to feel both “free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities”. In a very diverse street, a wide range of people came together to meet, share food, play games in a traffic-free road. It was co-operative, no-one was in charge, and people met neighbours of all ages they didn’t even recognise. It was, frankly, a revelation. And it’s a small example of what people can do for themselves with a very small amount of prompting and empowerment.
If Big Society is to work, its success will be establishing new social norms that help individuals, families and communities be happy, healthy and resilient. Coupled with appropriate behaviour change, this is consistent, for most, with being less dependent on the state.
I should add, though, that I think this is harder than proponents acknowledge: the level of social capital and volunteerism needed doesn’t just depend on goodwill and attitudinal change; it will depend on economic and cultural changes that enable people to consume less and work less, and this remains territory that mainstream politicians won’t address in public. Having said that, there are things we can do today and tomorrow that will make a difference.
If Big Society is meaningful, it’s about wellbeing, which we’ve been working on for quite some time. If Big Society turns out to be merely a way of making severe cuts and passing on responsibility for delivery without altering the relationship between service users and citizens on one hand, and the local and service deliverers on the other, then it’s not the project that Mr Cameron has described. So let’s take it at face value. And let’s think about what local authorities should be doing about this.
“We need a government that helps build a big society,” said the PM. As a starter for ten, and as a marker that Big Society is not just about service delivery and cuts, it would be good to see councils making a blanket order for street closures in every road where it’s possible, to enable residents to have a street party for Big Lunch Sunday 2011. Do it now, and keep on telling people about it. It’s low/no cost, pro-social, and (let’s be honest) good PR. What’s not to like?
It’s great to see the LGA seize the moment with its proposals for (and consultation on) a new accountability framework for localities,Freedom to lead: trust to deliver.
Reading it, an old (New) Localist might get goosebumps from the feeling that we really might see the sort of localism that many of us have dedicated so much time to arguing for. It would be better to see it arrive in less financially straitened times, but if this is what it takes (and if it’s a settlement, rather than a temporary deal to reduce central government association with the most controversial cuts), then so be it.
Climate change is addressed to an extent, in particular a suggestion that action could be linked to a new form of PSA, and that there be a small set of national ‘outcome’ metrics, linked to wellbeing and general life satisfaction. This sort of approach squares with the notion of local authorities as ‘place shapers’.
However, there is no mention of local carbon budgets (LCBs) in Freedom to Lead. This is disappointing (though it may, of course, change post-consultation). Not least because LCBs would ensure that there is recognition of the need to establish low-carbon communities and low-carbon local economies. It would also – in the spirit of the proposals – move governance to the local level. With LCBs, each locality would have a carbon budget, covering all aspects of its activity: not only the public sector (typically the cause of around 10% of an area’s carbon budget), but everything the area and its people are responsible for. The Budget would be each place’s share of the national carbon budget, established last summer but currently ‘owned’ by central government departments.
LCBs seem even more appropriate at a time when theCommittee on Climate Change (in its second annual progress report)is telling central government that it needs to “clarify how partnerships between local authorities, energy companies and other organisations will translate into a neighbourhood approach”.
And, as if by magic, anannouncement comes along from DECCthat illustrates why LCBs make sense. DECC are starting to put flesh on the bones of the government’s proposed Green Deal: CERT energy suppliers will be expected to invest £2.4bn by 2012 in energy efficiency and insulation measures in peoples’ homes.
This is an excellent measure. Unfortunately, though, even if successful, it might not achieve what it needs to in terms of carbon reduction. Much of this investment will save householders money on energy; what if that money is then spent on a product or service that creates emissions as great as those saved (known as the rebound effect)? What if I save £500 a year on energy at home, and spend it on flying to Barcelona for a weekend? Using current metrics, no problem – despite the obvious flaw.
LCBs can embrace issues like this, as they can be based on the consumption-based carbon footprint of the locality: not just the emissions we produce, but the emissions for which we are responsible. (If you want to see an example of this,download the Capital Consumption report, published by the London Sustainable Development Commission).
This assumes a discussion about lifestyles has to happen. And we need to use all the behaviour change expertise and knowledge at our disposal to deliver on it. There are few signs of this discussion happening nationally; at a local level, however, we can support the lower-carbon lifestyles that will be required. And, because we can refer to the local benefits and pleasures of living in a low-carbon way, we can make it much more appealing. In fact, it sounds in many respects like the local dimension of Big Society that tends to get overlooked in all the discussion about service delivery. This is starting to happen now: the Lake District National Park Authority has become the first authority to commit to a carbon budget, while the National Park Partnership is developing the approaches to deliver on it.
That’s why I think local carbon budgets are an essential part of future local governance. That’s why I think they are localist. And that’s why I hope that the LGA’s offer to central government will evolve to include them as a vital part of the future governance of each and every locality.