Local government does less and less. Councillors have less and less influence on what local government still does. Do we still even need them?
I've been thinking about that, via France, a country where local governments still do a lot.
Local government in France has two components. The parts you elect, in your commune, your department, your region, maybe even your city. And the part that you don’t, the prefect.
The Revolution led to the creation of the departments. They replaced variable and oddly shaped provinces.
The new units were small enough that a prefect at their centre could ride to every part within a day. A new Republic, with varying local support, surrounded by Royal enemies, needed to protect itself.
Prefects were selected in Paris and sent out to the country to apply the Republic’s constitution, laws, and central commands. Uprisings needed quelling. Schools needed forcing to teach French.
The British state has no prefects. Maybe we should have them. And no more local elections.
Local authorities are the UK equivalent of departments. Their structures are variable, complex, and unclear, but they are always elected and it is the elected who instruct officers. England, over five sixths of the UK’s population, has no consistent tier of government below local authority level (like French communes) or above local authority level (like French regions) except for the UK Parliament.
However we define it, local government in the UK does less and less. In the late 1800s when Britain was at its comparative economic prime, it was the largest part of the state, especially in the great cities. Soon it started to decline.
After the war and with exceptions, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, local government corporations were nationalised and then privatised. Gas in 1948 and 1972 before privatisation in 1986. Water in 1973 before privatisation in 1989. Buses in 1968, and 1985. Council housing in 1980 with right to buy. These are just four examples but the overall effect was in all cases the same, local government responsibilities and assets were shifted to central government, who often later chose to privatise them. Local government did less.
More recently, with no municipal corporations left to nationalise and few national corporations left to privatise the method of shifting the role of government from local to central has changed. Academy Schools move power over public education from local government to national government. Free Schools do the same.
Since 2010, what responsibilities and powers local government retained were reduced by funding cuts to local government combined with central government restrictions on their ability to raise tax.
The overall effect of all these changes in the past 75 years is best summarised by looking at employment numbers.
In the past decade, Central government employment has grown by a million. Local government employment has fallen by a million, even while it copes with a pandemic.
And the story is even more extreme than it looks. Most of what local government employs people to do today is beyond its power. Local government must, by UK central government law, provide social care. This represents over 40% and rising of local government total spending and offers little opportunity for local democratic input. Other spending legally required by central government represents even more of what local government does. To give one example, money is passed through to bus companies to fund national free bus passes for the elderly with no opportunity for local input at all.
Local councils must produce local plans to provide permission to build housing to meet a nationally set target, while respecting nationally set greenbelt, and always in the knowledge that any element of their plan can be overruled by the central government.
What is left to local government control is small.
Bin collections remain a local responsibility and the biggest topic in local government. Voter registration and elections, libraries, parking restrictions, potholes on local roads, cycle lanes, parks, statues, and Christmas lights add to the issues crowding the inboxes of councillors and their officers.
But even in these areas, there is less and less to decide on. The user experience of voter registration has been nationalised, a new site on gov.uk. Restrictions on pavement parking remain a national competence almost everywhere. There are new central laws on statues, consultations about new central laws on parks, and a promise of new nationalised standards for bin collections.
When local government innovates to deliver better services to its citizens, it is often criticised, threatened, and banned from continuing by central government.
Hundreds of central government challenge funds exist to do things that local government can no longer afford, like digitise public services, keep libraries open, or plant flowers in the town square. They all come with conditions attached that reduce local input and shift decisions on prioritisation from local to national government.
With so little powers to vote about, few people bother to vote in local elections. In Leeds, turnout is usually just a third of the population. If this number was higher it would be easier to demand more local power, but it is unclear that the appetite exists for that.
So why continue with local democracy at all?
I know many fantastic and hardworking councillors, and I think that they play an important role in bringing together our communities and strengthening our democracy. But even they admit that at times it can seem pointless. They are elected on often empty manifestos to try their best with limited powers to change very small things. Most spend most of their time being blamed for decisions made in Westminster, begging central government for money, and having their policies overturned or defunded by central government if they have different opinions.
So why not just get rid of local democracy? The fantastic officers and employees of local government do excellent jobs, but they could continue to do them under national democratic command. Countries like Malaysia have got rid of the democratic parts of their local government without catastrophe.
Digital government means that a centralised state no longer needs elected local government to listen and respond locally. The state can listen and respond instantly via the internet from the centre. All it needs is prefects in the provinces to instruct its local operatives, to quell disorder, and to promote the culture of the centre.
The UK has been making rapid progress in centralised government in the past decade. 1 million employees shifted from local government control to central government. The next stage will be a single website and app to deliver all government services,... birth certificates, settled status, train tickets, bus passes, bin collection timetables, parking permits, pothole reporting, library book renewal, statue consultations,...
If we do enough user-centred design, the current belief seems to be in central government, it'll all be fine.
I think that getting rid of elected local government would be a bad idea.
Complete central command in England (Scotland would never consent to this) would be less nimble, for the same reason as England’s Covid-19 app came out after Ireland’s and Scotland’s. I think it would make us poorer, for the same reason that Europe’s small nations have higher GDP per person. I think it would be less efficient, for the same reason that a national public transport smartcard has failed in the UK while working in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland. I think it would further divide our society and detach people from the places they live.
But it seems to be what most of the English people want. And the English are five sixths of the British people. And we are a democracy. And democracy should be about giving the people what they want, after you’ve tried to convince them. And if I’m honest, at the moment, I struggle at times to even convince myself that local government is worth the effort.