This is a crucial moment in the history of governance in the UK. In the wake of economic upheaval throughout most of the last decade, as well as the seismic impact of Brexit, political life in Britain is struggling to keep pace with events.
There are long-term challenges, too: changes in the relationship between citizens and the state; in technology and the ways we interact and communicate with one another; and in the expectations we have of institutions and leaders.
Something has to give.
With central government capacity stretched to breaking point and a lack of wherewithal in Westminster to deal with the impact of these changes, or to navigate them in local areas, a radical shift in governance is essential. Local government needs to have a bigger role in shaping the country’s future, with more power to make decisions and lead in local communities.
There is a deficit of trust in public institutions and the elites who run them: the banking crash of 2008, the MPs’ expenses scandal and a period of extended austerity in public services have all contributed to a loss of confidence that was thrown into stark relief by the EU referendum and its aftermath.
Empowering the cities and regions of England remains one of the most important issues for government to address and it needs to do it now. Yet the offer to local government so far has been limited. It has stopped short of signaling the radical changes in power and governance that are necessary.
In order to investigate this situation more fully, LGiU convened a high level network of six leaders, six chief executives and seven senior officers from councils across the country, as well as senior academics from four universities and practitioners from organisations across the public sector.
One clear message emerged: at this point of crisis, there needs to be a radical realignment of the relationship between central and local government. Brexit has perhaps made this change less likely, but it has also made it more essential. While councils have been forging ahead with innovative new ways of leading and delivering for places, central government has been preoccupied with other matters, many of which are remote from the real concerns of local communities.
That’s why we make the following recommendations:
A mayors’ sSenate: A mayors’ senate should be established, giving directly elected metro mayors this role.
In the first instance the Senate should cover the constitutional settlement surrounding Brexit, but it should also expand to cover public finances, infrastructure, service reform and government policy more generally.
This would be a first step towards representation of the English regions at the national level and ideally there would a wider pool of leaders involved in future.
A systematic review of public finance, led by local government: The crisis in funding for local government has been growing for some years, and the fall of the Finance Bill has placed a large question mark over the future of council funding.
A systematic review of local government funding should be set up immediately, and led by the very council leaders with the experience, knowledge and expertise which is lacking in Whitehall.
A new constitutional settlement: Without formal rules governing the relationship between central and local government, it is entirely reliant on trust and goodwill. But trust and goodwill is often severely lacking in the centre-local relationship.
Either that needs to be reversed, which seems unlikely in the near future, or we need a constitutional settlement to provide a framework and consistency over the roles and responsibilities of central and local government and a secure footing on which to build the future of local governance.
Devolution relaunch: The genie is out the bottle when it comes to devolution. The combined authorities have shown that building regional representation does not necessitate creating a new layer of bureaucracy.
This should be a programme of empowered regional governance and leadership to facilitate better democratic representation and greater local influence at the centre.
We have become used to a state of affairs in which roles and responsibilities are delegated from a distant and largely uninterested central government. This story has been in the making for a while – but now it is time to turn the tables and put local back at the heart of government.
Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of LGiU, the Local Government Information Unit. You can read the Beyond Devolution report here.
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