There are all sorts of problems that keep council chief executives and leaders awake at night, but I’m willing to bet the quality of local democracy is not one of them.
It should be. Local government’s whole legitimacy rests on elections, and turnouts have been falling for decades. The result is a diminished local politics and rampant centralism, because in the absence of strong accountability to local people it will always be easy for ministerial fiat to trump municipal discretion.
The pressure for change in the way England does democracy is slowly mounting. Councils can choose to lead that change or let someone else do it to them. But taking that lead requires councillors to challenge some of their most cherished values and behaviours.
Many local politicians cling to a world in which their groups, values and consciences reign supreme, but in the real world citizens increasingly expect openness and engagement with their politicians. As many theorists have pointed out, we are seeing a breakneck shift away from hierarchical power and towards networked power, but our politics has signally failed to keep up.
As more and more councils move down the commissioning route, councillors will have to give up their day-to-day responsibility for running services and focus on abstract ideas about the future of their place and the quality of service outcomes. This won’t be an easy shift to make. Councillors do not speak the same technocratic language as officers; they thrive on values, debate and conflict. Forcing them into the confines of a commissioning cycle will be hard, if not impossible.
Councils can either drive this process of democratic change or have someone else do it for them. NLGN has drawn up a short paper called Future Councillors: Where Next for Local Politics, supported by Grant Thornton, which looks at what the options might be. Developed through a workshop with 15 members and based on our own research, we found four possible futures for 2020:
- Networked council - local authorities that focus on community engagement, with citizens taking on a much greater role in commissioning and running their own services. Councillors would have to get used to the idea that their job was to give their power away.
- Council PLC - these authorities will probably be high performers, but with a very technocratic political culture. Outsiders may struggle to spot the difference between members and officers. Despite being effective, these councils will probably not feel very democratic. They are more likely to do things to citizens than with them.
- Navel gazing - councils that do not get to grips with their cuts or the changing democratic context. While they argue internally about why they’re failing, the cuts are destroying their services. Treading water in a pool with the plug taken out.
- Tower of babel - this is where navel gazers end up when they don’t get their act together; the council is surrounded by protest groups and angry residents, opening up space for residents’ groups, independents and protest parties to win elections.
When we tested these scenarios with backbench councillors, they came to the surprising conclusion that they were most comfortable with the Tower of Babel. This was a future in which they had a clear role and could express their political values.
Is the real choice between cold technocracy and passionate political chaos? Or can we grasp our political future and build something better?
Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network