Professor James Mitchell on the future of local government
If the trend in central-local relations continues on the path followed over the last half century then we will be unable to talk of local government. We will have local administration, a system in which autonomy has been lost. There have been moments when the trend has been stalled but the inexorable trend towards centralisation eventually powers ahead.
Centralisation may be what many want – though few dare openly and explicitly make the case. This is implicit in complaints about ‘postcode lotteries’. We often here reference to our proclivity for American levels of tax and Scandinavian levels of public spending. There is an equivalent in central local relations: we want local conditions recognised and uniformity of service provision. These are incompatible positions. Localism involves diversity or it means nothing.
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We need to understand why this centralist trend has happened. All parties talk decentralisation in opposition but centralise in power. At one level this makes sense, it would be odd if politicians gave power away to opponents as would be involved if a central government ceded more power to local government. Parties may come to power after years in opposition during which they argue for decentralisation and may initially move in that direction but frustration with perceived lack of progress in delivery (the curse of parties in their second or later terms) or sense that policies are frustrated, if not deliberately undermined, by local government can lead to centralisation. And it is not only politicians who feel this way, this is not an uncommon view amongst central government civil servants.
This implies a zero-sum game, i.e., that central-local relations involve one government gaining power exactly mirroring a loss for the other. But the decline of local government undermines central government’s capacity to deliver services. Increasing central control only creates more frustration at the centre.
The worlds of central and local government often feel like they are on different planets – sometimes a wilful refusal to understand the challenge the other faces but more often a basic lack of serious communication. It is not a lack of formal communication – there are endless meetings and no lack of formal channels – but a lack of empathy, a willingness or ability to really listen and really hear the other. It is remarkable how quickly local councillors who become ministers become socialised into a central government mindset and how easy it is for local politicians to have no understanding of the pressures and demands of the centre.
An empathy strategy is needed with meaningful interchange. Shadowing occurs but the time is ripe for a more developed form of exchange with regular secondments of decent periods of time and at different levels. Apart from the obvious impediments of qualification (not to mention GTC approval), it might not be a bad thing if civil servants spent a bit of time teaching in our school classrooms – not a quick visit but a deeper appreciation of the daily challenges faced where services are actually delivered.
There are two fundamentals that we struggle with. First, there is local government’s lack of constitutional status. Local authorities are the creatures of statute. Parliament’s power to alter local authorities is almost limitless. The ratchet effect of increasing centralisation is controlled by the centre. It is difficult to change this fundamentally under the UK constitution but it would be possible for Parliament to adopt the Council of Europe’s Charter for Local Self-Government in statute. Any future Parliament could of course alter a previous Act of the Scottish Parliament. Diceyan sovereignty lives on in Holyrood contrary to all the waffle of leading up to devolution. But it would require a conscious effort to amend such a provision.
Second, at some point agreement will have to be found on how local government is financed. There is no lack of proposals and no need for commissions. What has been lacking is agreement and a will to change. And here we return to the age-old problem referred to at the start. All parties talk decentralisation in opposition but centralise in power. But even in opposition, there’s little evidence of parties that are likely to win power taking this seriously.
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