Sub-regional devolution and the effects of austerity are combining to draw councils further away from communities

The local government sector has come under sustained fiscal pressure following the election of a Conservative-led Government in 2010, and is set for more after the election of a majority Conservative government in 2015. Alison Gardner argues that this, and the introduction of sub-regional levels of governance such as the reforms being rolled out in Greater Manchester, are combining to threaten local government’s status even as a ‘network coordinator’, let alone anything more substantive. 

Credit: Sean Kippin

Newcastle Civic Centre (Credit: Sean Kippin)

The ‘Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill’ published at the end of May 2015 provided the cornerstone for the new government’s flagship decentralisation agenda.  Yet as Professor Robin Hambleton has recently argued, rather than granting increased power to local government, the bill’s focus on a new layer of sub-regional, combined authorities will actually move power further away from local communities.  This problem has potential to be exacerbated by the erosion of local authorities’ ‘community leadership’ role, due to financial pressures associated with austerity.

During the early 1990s, academics and practitioners championed a role for English local government ‘not just to deliver certain services well but to steer a community to meet the full range of its needs’.  Although the idea of community leadership has deep historic roots, the 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in the contribution of local government to the strategic development and wellbeing of a locality, through its capacity to connect fragmented layers of governance in an increasingly fractured service delivery landscape.

In practice, public policy expert Helen Sullivan noted that community leadership took a number of forms.  This included a strategic ‘enabling’ role for councils, further developed by the 2007 Lyons inquiry for local government, which called for local government to become a‘convenor’ and ‘place-shaper’ for local services.  Another academic, Adrian Madden, argues that place-shaping tended to concentrate power in existing structures and local civic elites.

An alternative interpretation was community leadership as ‘community voice’, promoting councillor and service connections with local people as a practical response to problems of low turnouts and local democratic deficitAcademics Michael Clarke and John Stewart championed this role in 1999, arguing that an authority could ensure the whole range of resources in the community were used to the good of the locality, if it empowered communities and citizens and channelled their expressed will.

A third type of leadership observed by Sullivan was community leadership as a ‘symbolic act’ embodying messages of modernisation, and the growing self-confidence of local government under the Labour government. The fourth was a more critical observation of community leadership as an ‘expedient device’, diverting attention from the hard-power lost to local government as a result of market-led reforms.

Since 2010, legislative changes and financial pressure have tended to favour a strategic ‘enabling’ role for local authorities over other forms of community leadership.  Although funding for statutory partnership bodies was initially cut by the Coalition government, new initiatives have been created, including whole-place community budget pilots, city deals, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS), and combined authorities.  This activity has increasingly been focussed at a cross-boundary and sub-regional level.

In contrast, there has been a rapid reduction in the funding available for local authorities to understand and express community voice.  The (on average) 37% reductions made to local authority grant funding within the 2010-2015 comprehensive spending review have forced councils to cut support for non-statutory voluntary and community level projects, as well as voluntary sector infrastructure.  New community rights to challenge, bid, reclaim land, plan and build, granted under the 2011 Localism Act effectively set communities in direct opposition to councils, whilst powers to enforce compliance with a formerly advisory publicity code have  increased restraint on communications between councils and their citizens.

In my own research, a recent case study of an urban unitary authority showed that although the council had continued to support strategic local multi-agency partnership activity on a shoe-string budget, it was increasingly focussing on cross-boundary work, and withdrawing from community-level initiatives.

Voluntary sector and faith-based organisations were starting to assume some of the local ‘convening’ functions previously performed by the council.  For example a large housing association was co-ordinating administration of a multi-million pound lottery grant, which aimed to re-shape statutory service provision for vulnerable people, whilst the Church had created a new ‘infrastructure’ organisation, co-ordinating voluntary activity.  However these roles could be deeply uncomfortable for the lead organisations, trying to establish their credibility and legitimacy with other partners, and involved costly and time-consuming negotiation.  Although leadership roles were being left vacant as the local authority withdrew from a ‘community voice’ role, they were not easy or uncontested spaces to fill.

Therefore the potential for the local government to become detached from communities has surely never been greater.  It risks being caught in three way dilemma, with enabling leadership activity principally at a sub-regional level, an increasingly limited role as local service provider, and a diminished ability to represent community voice, further reducing an already paper-thin veneer of democratic legitimacy.  The other form of community leadership remaining is leadership as a symbolic act, but in this regard a lack of material resources means that councils are increasingly dependent on exercising influence rather than direct agency, and hampered by that one interviewee termed an ‘empty toolbox’.

Local government expert Gerry Stoker once warned that

‘I worry that we… may have sold local government ‘a pup’, that is the idea of local governance and the role of the community governor.  I have doubts about the sustainability of local government at all if all that it has to offer is the role of community network co-ordinator’.

As sub-regional devolution and the effects of austerity combine to draw councils away from communities, even that role is now under threat.

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. It originally appeared on the Nottingham University Ballots & Bullets blog. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Alison 2-150x209Alison Gardner has been working in and around English local government for 18 years.  She is currently in the third year of a PhD at the University of Nottingham, researching responses to austerity in local public services.

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