Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network, contemplates how councils will manage the future challenges thrown up by population changes, diminishing resources and the economy.
One of the first rules of futurology is never to make predictions. The future is determined by so many interlinking trends and drivers, including technologies none of us can yet imagine, that it is foolhardy to claim that we can see 20 years into the future with any kind of clarity. But we do have a pretty clear sense of the factors that will shape the world of 2043, and by understanding these we can plan more effectively.
It seems likely that we will see an ongoing reshaping of the role of the local state. Even if the British economy can be persuaded to deliver sustained growth, and a substantial portion of the growth can be captured in taxation, the state as a whole will probably remain under huge financial pressure due to the costs of ageing. Councils will probably continue to face rising demand and constrained resources.
One way to manage the resource squeeze on the UK’s public finances will be to import large numbers of young migrants. Some parts of London are already ‘majority minority’ and this may well spread across larger parts of the country.
The evidence tells us that it is very hard to maintain high levels social capital alongside high levels of population churn. This does not make migration a bad thing in the slightest, but it does mean that our communities will remain in flux. Migrant nations like the US and Australia tend to have smaller, more market-oriented welfare states and we may well decide that this is preferable to becoming an insular island fortress.
Everything we know about the shape of the next economy tells us that it will probably lead to greater levels of inequality (although perhaps also more meritocracy). Unless the UK is somehow able to generate large numbers of middle-wage jobs, or the public’s attitudes to redistribution change dramatically, the hourglass distribution of resources across society is only going to get worse. Councils will have to deal with the fall-out.
It is hard to imagine a 2043 in which we have abundant natural resources. The sheer weight of population growth across the planet will increase competition for fossil fuels and drive a reliance on nuclear and renewables (barring the development of a reliable fusion engine). Councils may well have a much larger role in managing local energy and resource security.
The flipside of these very deep challenges will be huge opportunities to transform the very nature of a council through technology. In healthcare, we can already see a future where people monitor their own health in real time and interact with medics online to spot problems early.
Aspects of social care may become similarly decentralised, while smart metering and local energy production could link a household’s energy bill to its recycling rates. Citizens may be persuaded to do more for themselves not through the magic of community participation, but through being put in control of the right kinds of information.
Twenty years into the future, large parts of local government as we know it may well be either irrelevant or unaffordable. All we can say with confidence is that it will look very different.