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Barry Quirk and Matthew Taylor: Four priorities for councils in the age of illiberal democracy

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A guest commentary tying in with next month’s LGC Summit from the chief executives of Kensington & Chelsea RBC and the RSA

The LGC Summit in two weeks is an important opportunity for senior figures in local government to compare notes, get some wider perspectives and discuss a range of approaches to innovation. As speakers and two of the facilitators this year our feeling is that we need to use the event to be more ambitious for the sector.

An important context for our conversations is the deepening crisis of liberal democracy. This is demonstrated globally in increasing public disenchantment with political establishments and the rise of populist alternatives. Political scientist Yascha Mounk describes the rise of “illiberal democracy”. After the global financial crisis, Mounk argues that many national governments displayed a form of “undemocratic liberalism” in which they appeared to be more attentive to the needs of banks and other powerful vested interests than they were to people’s living standards, rising income inequality and the problems of cross-border migration.

In the UK (and particularly in England) we see a central government that is focussed on withdrawing from the EU so as to “deliver” the Brexit vote. But the consequence of this is a corresponding timidity towards domestic policy and a slowdown in innovation across the public sector.

These issues are much debated in places like the RSA. Much less discussed is that against the same backdrop of policy stagnation and political polarisation, local government faces very different and specific challenges.

There’s still time to book

Limited places are still available for council chief executives and their direct reports at the LGC Summit. It takes place on 12-13 September in Manchester and features speakers including NHS England chief Simon Stevens, Homes England chief Nick Walkley and Southwark LBC chief Eleanor Kelly.

For full details click here

Put simply, national governments focus on their borders and on national wellbeing; and inevitably they become concerned about unwarranted variations within these borders. This means that they are bound through policy, to reinforce uniformity and encourage convergence. Local governments, by contrast, focus on their local connections and on community wellbeing. As a result, they are bound to stress uniqueness and foster divergence.

From this analysis, the American urbanist, Bruce Katz, draws the conclusion that cities are the location of open and accountable responsive democracy in increasingly populist nation states. He claims that this ‘new localism’ is a pragmatic and plural approach to local problem solving that fits with the networked nature of the 21st century’.

The seduction of this binary approach is difficult for local government people to resist. After all it places local government as the force of progressive good that could save the world from the dangers of populism. But it’s recklessly optimistic. Local government is not a solution to populism simply because its work is local. It is only a solution if it does good work. In a divergent system where councils inevitably focus on their uniqueness, some may do great work, while others may focus on achieving the wrong things.

That is why, across local government, we need to be open and honest in identifying what approaches work best and what are the prospects and limits of our approaches to achieving significant service change and substantive community benefit locally.

We face two sets of problems; communication and policy. First, we need to set out the achievements and translatable lessons of local leadership. From Preston to Barking & Dagenham, and from North Ayrshire to Coventry, there are reasons to hope, lessons to learn, and models to follow. But in general the public don’t know, the national politicians don’t seem to want to know and the national media don’t seem to care. So we need a new, more assertive narrative. This isn’t just about defending ourselves from critics or blowing our own trumpet; it is about injecting hope and practical action to a pessimistic, and sometimes angry, national narrative.

Second, local government cannot keep swimming against the tide. We have to recognise that sometimes external pressure has been needed to force councils to be creative and discover new assets. But local government has so much more to do to retain its relevance to local communities. We must continue to campaign for a policy framework for local government that enables us to innovate so that our services and our approaches to community building are future focussed. That framework will also make demands on local government.

The LGC summit offers an opportunity to discuss what would be necessary for local government to supply the rocket fuel for economic, social and democratic renewal. We suggest four priorities:

  • · First, building on some of the ideas in the government’s civil society plan but adding the crucial ingredient of electoral reform, we need to cement the idea of local government as the crucible of ambitious and innovative citizen engagement.
  • · Second, local government must be the lead agency for collaborative action to tackle social and economic issues. This should be the outcome of the review of local enterprise partnerships, the unfolding reorganisation of the NHS and the growing debate about the need for local educational oversight.
  • · Third, we need to develop a more adaptive and effective geographies of local action. On the one hand, government initiatives – like industrial policy or benefit reform – can have massively different impacts in different places. On the other hand, councils must be ever more proactive in collaborating to achieve effectiveness and to deal with the huge leakage and spill-over effects (across their boundaries) of local economic, housing and other policies.
  • · Fourth, as well as immediate action to help councils become financially sustainable and not abandon their statutory responsibilities, national and local government must agree the principles which should underlie a fair, resilient and realistic local government finance system.

Others will have better ideas and we look forward to hearing them. We must all understand and live up to the responsibility and opportunity that lies with local government in these perilous times.

Barry Quirk, chief executive, Kensington & Chelsea RBC, and Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

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