This is Ian Briggs' summary of a number of issues facing local government in 2020.
When nations face massive uncertainty such as large scale conflict, huge economic crisis, global pandemics and dare we say it breaking away from multi-national forms of governmental administration the inter-relationship between the national government and local government is placed into very sharp focus. As we enter the third decade of the twenty first century the apparent fragmentation of local administration in the United Kingdom perhaps best exemplified by the successive devolutions of power to Scotland and Wales (not forgetting the unusual governance arrangements in Northern Ireland) that started to draw certain powers away from Westminster and has blurred the defining lines between local government and governments in Holyrood and Cardiff. Indeed, as the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales began to find their feet the role of local government in both began to be subtly but significantly reformed.
So, the Victorian foundations of local government in the UK are ever receding into history even though many will still strongly identify with the civic values that are so strongly identified with it. Burt as for England where from the 1990’s there have been some very stop-start approaches to devolved decision making form Westminster but at least certain regions have a strange half way house of regional Mayors. This may be a tacit admission by Westminster that it cannot possibly achieve all it sets out to do unless it has some form of trusted agent in the regions ready and willing to do its bidding for it. Much like the Crown needing to have their Sheriffs in the Shires to raise their armies and collect their taxes. Odd, how history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
But the relationship is not always easy; challenge and disagreements between certain local authorities and governments in Westminster take place not just along party lines where one party in power in a local council sets themselves in dispute with the ruling party in central government. Some of the hardest to resolve disputes take place when the same party in power nationally falls out with its siblings in local government. Clearly the power is imbalanced between central and local government and quite rightly so, there are many good reasons why local government should follow the lead of the national government but there are times when it needs to have a voice that challenges central government policy. There is a need to speak truth to power. As Chomsky is reported (but perhaps being grossly misquoted) as saying in being dismissive of speaking truth to power, he asserts “power knowns the truth already, and is busy concealing it”.
The advent of social media especially has exposed certain practices and processes between those elected in government and their administrative staff. Where in the past the machinations of influence between the elected and the civil servant have largely taken place in private so too local government has begun to be exposed. Attaining the higher levels of responsibility in any local authority was for many years seen as the epitome of having a job for life, or a job for as least you wanted it as long as you kept the rules on probity. Today, we see senior posts in local government, although much better financially rewarded compared to say, thirty years ago, are changing more rapidly than before. Chief Executives in a growing number of cases last less than twelve months in post and the same can be said of many of their many other senior staff. It is possible to find many cases where senior managers report and inability to cope with the pressures of the job, often citing lack of direction from politicians or simply a break down in relationships. Councillors can have ambitions that are just not achievable, one of the best sources of evidence is where councils embark upon risky business ventures without the supporting commercial acumen to ensure their success. As Ministers in Government can set up their departments to fail so can councillors, its just that the consequences are noted at a local level and do not always reach the national media.
As the year 2020 draws to a close, questions are now being asked of how secure is the relationship between central and local government? To deal with a national emergency central government must have the support of local government as much as local government must have the support of its political superiors in Westminster. This is now being put very much to the test – the next few years, or even less could prove to be the making – or the breaking of local government in the UK.