In praise of local government
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Maligning local government will get us nowhere, even if it is our democratic right to do so.
Often maligned and little-understood, they touch a large part of all of our lives. They do as much as any to make where we live what it is, and keep it that way.
I write here to cheer the cause of local government.
Almost certainly you know more about national politics than you do about your local council. It is not difficult to understand why. Local government lacks the glamour associated with parliament and its acolytes, or the prestige of making grand-scale national announcements. Few in Westminster or in the press seem to understand or care about how local government works.
Yet it is the engine-house of public services.
As a senior council officer once put it to me: Whitehall does the waffling, we do the doing.
And she wasn’t wrong. Councils are the stewards of local democracy, curators of place, allies of business, enforcers of the law, and planners of the future.
Local councils look after the most vulnerable in our community and manage the fabric of our villages, towns and cities. They keep children safe and support older people who need caring for. They build social housing, fill libraries with books, run buses, operate swimming pools, and maintain parks. They keep the air clean, sweep the streets, fill potholes, inspect restaurants, and register births and deaths. They are responsible for animal welfare, abandoned vehicles, controlling parking, managing allotments, gritting roads, licensing pubs, running elections, and doing the bins. And these are just a few examples of many.
On top of this, councils are anchor institutions, standing up for their area, employing large numbers of people, and supporting an ecosystem of businesses and community organisations around them. To take one example, in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2016, Sunderland council did more than anyone to broker a means of keeping Nissan car production on Wearside.
All this makes local authorities the ultimate portfolio businesses.
And it is unsurprising – even if not excusable – that not all councils are good at all things. (Multi-billion dollar companies like Unilever or Virgin would baulk at their list of jobs.)
Over the last ten years, you might conjecture that local government’s general un-lovedness has made it an easy target to bear the brunt of austerity. Cuts across councils have been deeper than almost anywhere else, with income falling by more than a quarter since 2010.
In response, councils have accepted their fate and got on with it with a certain amount of magnanimity.
It is true that local government finds it difficult to voice their complaints: they don’t inspire the quasi-religious devotion that the NHS does, or have the lobbying purse of big business. But perhaps that acceptance also reflects the fact that, to their core, councils are democratic institutions. At a time where democracy feels more fragile than at any other point in my lifetime this is to be cherished.
By in large, councils have coped with less money. Senior leaders admit that that the first few years gave them a chance to reset, and become leaner, sharper organisations. Certainly anyone who does business with local authorities these days knows they are a tougher customer to please.
But most people that understand local government agree we’ve reached a point now where there is little left to cut. Any low hanging fruit was picked a long time ago. Reserves are running dry. No-one expects the new government to be generous to local authorities but a bit more cash will be welcome.
Regrettably, local government does a poor job of its own PR. Councils suffer from what market researchers have called the ‘perception gap’; that is, the public’s tendency to be more positive about their services than about the council itself. They should be open to criticism – they can be inflexible, their processes labyrinthine and, like all big organisations I have any experience of, there are people that shouldn’t be in their job – but this should not detract from the valuable work they do, however unglamourous.
So before you throw stones, make sure you know what you are aiming at. They are far from perfect but our lives wouldn’t be the same without the work of councils, both in the ways that they enrich a place, their commitment to democracy, and everything they do to keep the country running.
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