The (local) state we’re in

Does it matter if local government fails? Well obviously at LGiU we think it does, writes Jonathan Carr-West. But, why?

There’s been a, lot of speculation over the course of this year about how many councils might be at risk of failing to balance their budgets. Certainly, a decade of deep cuts has left local government in many parts of the country dangerously close to the edge. Several councils have officially said that they are cutting back to a minimum level of statutory provision, many other councils are doing so quietly.

But, of course, there’s no clear definition of what that minimum is. We are bottoming that out through a series of legal challenges: to council’s library services or their level of special educational needs provision for instance.

That’s an inefficient and expensive way of going about things but it’s also very damaging. The most immediate impact of course is on the people who rely on those services, but I think it goes wider than that. It goes to the heart of our social contract; how we think about ourselves and others and our obligations to each other within society.

The nature and extent of that contract is, quite rightly subject to political debate and will never be settled. It is dynamic and discursive. What we should avoid, however, is defaulting to a position that no one has actually chosen through a process of budgeting and judicial review. That’s not a good way to decode what sort of society we want to be.

The diminution of the local state and of the conversation about the local state leaves us all more isolated.

Local government in its modern form is a complex bureaucracy. It has no a priori right to exist as such. But at its heart it is simply the institutional manifestation of the principle that communities come together to self organise and to support each other. That does matter. And we would all be poorer without it.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGiU.

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    1. Michael Heaslip says:

      “But at its heart it is simply the institutional manifestation of the principle that communities come together to self organise and to support each other. ”

      The trouble is that it isn’t. Since 1974, Local Government has been organised on the neo-liberal idea of “new public management” where managerial principles trump democracy and community. Few local authorities these days could be said to represent a “community”, and the number is shrinking as local authorities are aggregated in pursuit of the chimera of “economies of scale”, thus losing whats left of their identification with the real communities with which citizens identify. Trust falls and community engagement declines.

      Its right to exist derives from its representation of citizens in community. All else is just service management and could be done without councillors or any democratic involvement – see NHS for example.

    2. Abdool Kara says:

      Good piece Jonathan. I would add that it is not all about the motherhood and apple pie of working together and supporting each other; there are also local decisions to be made which create winners and losers, planning being a great example. And the only way we have worked out to do that is to have sufficient local democratic legitimacy (albeit within a highly structured legal framework, and with the opportunity of appeal). It is almost impossible to think that this could be done centrally. Nonetheless, such ‘local’ decisions create schisms, and can undermine the ability to self-organise on a collective basis. This tension between the different roles of local government is often overlooked.