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This piece was first published by the Local Government Information Unit
Since its experimental beginnings around 2011, the process of decentralising power to English cities and regions through a succession of ‘deals’ has had pragmatism at its root. Five years on, the practical progress of local areas in forging partnerships, developing plans and delivering projects has been mirrored at the centre, including by George Osborne’s personal championing of devolution as “The thing I am fighting for most as Chancellor”. Further underlining the agenda’s journey to the heart of mainstream government policy, this year’s Budget brings the total number of live ‘Devolution Deal’ areas to 10, covering up to 30 per cent of the country’s population.
This evolution of deals – City, Growth and now Devolution – from a fringe pursuit to ‘the new normal’ has increasingly seen a battle developing between idealists and cynics – indeed, sometimes one and the same people. Yet behind the scenes it is still the pragmatists who are pressing on with making deals work – and there’s a lot of work to get on with.
Having secured headline deal agreements, there are three main practical tasks for places to work through.
Perhaps the surest sign that devolution has emerged, bleary-eyed but purposeful, from a wonkish backwater into the political mainstream is the emergence of a backlash.
Academics and activists have long expressed concerns that the combined authority, city-region model of governance could take power further away from the people it serves, with a perceived elite negotiating ‘deals’ behind closed doors. Ever ahead of the game, Greater Manchester has seen the backlash hit first, with its controversial appointment of a ‘shadow’ Mayor and fledging effort to integrate a health system perceived as ‘national’ with social care raising some hackles.
The increasing national prominence of devolution, most recently embodied in the Chancellor’s announcement on business rates, has seen these criticisms become more prominent. Recent weeks have seen the People’s Assembly incorporate Devo Manc into their carnival of protest and debate around the Conservative Party Conference, the ever-reliable Polly Toynbee dismissing the policy shift as a ‘savage con’, and – most dishearteningly – Her Majesty’s Opposition seeking to defeat the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill against the wishes of its own city leaders.
There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the current approach to devolution: centrally controlled, accompanied by an aggressive fiscal agenda and urgently requiring underpinning with effective local scrutiny, accountability and participation. Those who have spoken out for a better way of doing things are almost without exception well-intentioned, locally knowledgeable and fundamentally correct. Yet criticism also needs to be channelled to where it can be most constructive. Those focusing their energies on the democratic deficit and inherent unevenness in the deal process itself need to take a long, hard look at the centralist status quo – with its indirectly elected executive, siloed departmental empires and web of unaccountable agencies and quangos – and ask themselves: do you seriously think that these deals aren’t an improvement?
Rather than invoking reactionary sentiment around the fear of change, people serious about winning power for communities should focus on shaping the change itself. We can, and should, continue to push for constitutional change as Jon Trickett and others on the Labour front bench have advocated, while doing our best to make incremental change work. Indeed, it is only by doing the latter that we make the former possible: liberating the idea of a new constitutional settlement from the ivory tower in which it has long languished, bringing it first into the realms of political possibility and then political necessity.
So what can be done to open up the devolution process? The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill offers a great chance to address some of the concerns being expressed, and some sterling work has already been done across parties in the Lords. Scrutiny has been a major focus of the debate on the legislation to date, underlining the fact that backbench councillors are amongst those potentially feeling disempowered by the nature and speed of the ‘deal’ process, as recently acknowledged by Oldham Council leader Jim McMahon.
Increasingly, a traditional approach to scrutiny will not be adequate to cover the breadth of often novel activity, across organisations and budgets, that will be taking place in a devolved landscape. The idea of local Public Accounts Committees – floated by the Centre for Public Scrutiny and adopted by Labour for its 2015 manifesto – is an idea whose time has come, enabling a true shift towards being able to open up public spending across a place to scrutiny and accountability. Returning to ideas such as this offers a route for Labour to engage in constructive opposition, rather than attempting wrecking amendments.
Perhaps more ambitious politically is the push – championed in the Lords by Liberal Democrat former leader of Newcastle City Council Lord Shipley and others – for a more representative voting system in local government. Ending first past the post for local elections, while presenting less of a risk to the national establishment than the same shift in national elections, could nonetheless have profound impacts. It would enable a far greater diversity of views and debate to proliferate at local level and a greater proportion of people to feel confident that their views were being represented – particularly given the widespread concerns about too much power being vested in an elected Mayor.
But far more could also be done locally outside existing legislation to use the devolution agenda to tackle disempowerment and distrust. Again there is ample scope for those with doubts about the process to bring forward specific, credible proposals.
To take one burning example, the potential role of participatory budgeting in helping to set the broad financial envelope in which decisions are made is made all the more pertinent by the limited tax-raising powers announced by the Chancellor around business rates. Conventional consultation on budgets and services often leaves people disillusioned by the dissonance between their response (‘no cuts!’) and the decisions that end up being implemented. Involving people in civic trade-offs and interactions – between different areas of spend, between public expenditure and revenue raising, even between state and crowd sourced solutions – is essential. There is no shortage of international examples of how this can be made to work on an ambitious scale and it is to be hoped that constructive and thoughtful advocates of such an approach in Greater Manchester will gain traction.
Democracy and participation are a critical part of making local autonomy meaningful and useful for people and communities. But we can campaign for and implement them in a way which enhances, rather than threatens, the most successful challenge to our centralised state for a generation. Rather than being used to put the brakes on this power shift, democracy can and must become the wheels that make the deals work.
This post was first published by the Local Government Information Unit
With devolution now big news, and government indicating that it is prepared to bring significant powers and budgets to the table, there has been considerable interest in the Treasury’s latest invitation to places to propose ‘devolution deals’.
City-region areas, counties and other combinations of authorities covering the majority of England’s population and economic output – as well as some Scottish and Welsh city-regions – have taken the opportunity to approach government, with many investing more time and political capital in both the content and the proposed governance of their ideas than they may have done previously.
Though the figure disguises some local political manoeuvrings, 38 places and groups put forward formal submissions for the latest deadline of 4thSeptember. Framed, inevitably, by the precedent of Greater Manchester’s achievements, and to a lesser extent those of other large cities and most recently Cornwall in securing ambitious deals, the submissions reveal a number of common threads:
- Fiscal devolution focused around business rates
- Transport investment, bus and train franchising and integrated ticketing
- Skills funding, incentives and regulation
- Devolution of business support budgets
- Specific sector-based investment
- Devolution of employment support commissioning
- Housing delivery and public land
- Greater control over European funding
- Initial steps towards integration of health and social care
Partly reflecting a strong Ministerial lead from Greg Clark, proposals have sought to go further than the one-off investments which characterised previous rounds of deal activity, with places increasingly demanding the fundamental realignment of nationally held budgets and, to an extent, fiscal freedoms. This partly reflects the budgetary circumstances: most forward-thinking authorities and partnerships will view the quest for new powers, the effort to weather the financial storm ahead and the need to join up public services as three sides of a triangle.
This post was first published by the Local Government Information Unit
The summer Budget, and the parallel launch of a ‘Productivity Plan’ (LGiU members’ briefing here) sought to establish a fresh narrative on the economy: the business end, if you will, of ‘One Nation’. While deficit reduction and job creation remain major themes, boosting productivity (and thereby wages, living standards and international competitiveness) looks set to provide a new focus. What does this mean in reality?
The national ‘productivity gap’ and ‘productivity puzzle’ are not new issues, as Andrew Sentance highlights. Britain’s output per hour worked has consistently been lower than G7 or European comparators, and has failed to recover since the financial crisis. With wages depressed, firms have often retained or hired employees despite the economic conditions, but not necessarily invested in skills, technology or otherwise boosting those workers’ output. Early in his Chancellorship, Gordon Brown identified five ‘drivers of productivity’: all are reflected, albeit with a conservative gloss, in George Osborne and Sajid Javid’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ plan.
As the length of the document demonstrates, the Chancellor is using productivity as a positive political frame for a range of decisions which, in reality, have disparate origins and impacts – most controversially, significant welfare changes. To be meaningful, at a time of institutional change, the focus on productivity must also address deep-seated structural issues affecting individuals and businesses’ interactions with each other and with the state.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill establishes a formal framework for the concept of bespoke devolution ‘deals’ with local areas. Leaving aside whether more profound constitutional change would have been desirable – touched on in previous posts, An enabling bill – but what does that really mean? and The Queens’ Speech – it is clear that the Bill offers a serious opportunity for more localities to secure decentralised powers and responsibilities. However, it is also clear that the continuation of the ‘deal’ approach keeps the onus on local partners to demonstrate how devolution can drive public service improvements, economic growth and fiscal benefits. Simply invoking subsidiarity will not be sufficient; devolution, in short, must be seen to have a point.
Thus far, the main arguments deployed for devolution – most successfully by Greater Manchester – hinge on the potential of place-based working to address complex or intractable problems: supporting families with complex needs to become more resilient, helping people experiencing long-term unemployment into work, reducing the ‘skills gap’, integrating health and social care. Through the integration and coordination of different services and budgets across organisational and professional siloes, it is posited, localities can create more coherent and human ‘customer journeys’, improving the effectiveness of state expenditure in achieving outcomes and reducing the need for state intervention.
This argument has a crucial intuitive appeal, contrasting the remote Whitehall machine with the human-scale ways of working and relationships which the city-region can supposedly deliver. However, it has limitations. The integration narrative is underpinned by a tacit assumption that everyone wants to achieve similar outcomes, even if we disagree about how to get there or some of us are slower to realise it than others. The challenge is to realign different incentive and performance frameworks and ways of working to reflect this shared interest. But how about an area of policy where everyone’s interests do not align?
George Osborne’s final Budget of the Parliament is just weeks away, and everyone’s eager to watch him produce a few wallet-enhancing rabbits from the hat. And to do so, if possible, without detracting from the background music: a catchy number called ‘Our Long Term Economic Plan Is Working (But We Need To Finish The Job)’.
Aside from deficit reduction, though, there is another self-imposed financial constraint which all sides, with lesser or greater enthusiasm, have accepted. While the Conservatives’ message on the deficit is ‘leave it to the grown ups’, the support across parties for the ring fencing of departmental budgets is – far more quietly and insidiously – infantilising the national debate. It should be questioned wherever possible before the election.
This isn’t new: the Coalition Agreement included a ‘guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the Parliament’, interpreted by many as an attempt to detoxify the Tories’ brand on the issue of the NHS. The tactic was continued throughout the Parliament, amidst criticism from both left and right. With an election approaching, however, and mainstream media to be wooed, it’s clear that all sides still regard the approach as good politics. While the NHS bidding war has been revived and continues to escalate, another costly ring fencing commitment, on schools, has resurfaced as an election battleground.
Isn’t this just how politics works? Why does it matter?
The most obvious and well documented reason is the impact of ring fencing such substantial budgets on other areas of government spending. We’ve heard mutterings of rebellion from the so-called National Union of Ministers, misgivings from the Treasury Select Committee, and increasingly stark analysis from the ever-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. Local government has been particularly badly affected, seeing headline cuts of 37% from 2010 to 2015/16 according to the National Audit Office. To be fair, although it has helped them to shift the blame for cuts, the Government’s early and genuinely localist move to de-ringfence local government grants should be acknowledged. But it’s hardly the stuff that sets manifestos or party political broadcasts alight, and in some ways that’s precisely the problem.
More fundamentally, but perhaps less well discussed outside the political press, a debate on spending levels is almost completely irrelevant without a debate on outcomes. ‘Spending more’ is consistently used as political shorthand both for ‘caring more’ and for ‘doing better’, even though the links are often tenuous or unproven – as this article argues powerfully on the schools question in particular. Yes, we should ask how much money we are spending, but also about what value that gets us. How will the money be spent differently or more effectively than it has been in the past? What are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve? What are the solutions which will help us get there? Might those outcomes and solutions be different in different localities?
A failure to engage with these questions has also pervaded the running battle over NHS funding. In recent months, the arguments have largely been framed by Simon Stevens’ wide-ranging review. The five year NHS plan has quickly provoked an arms race between the parties, who have been vying to write the largest cheque to help meet the £30bn funding gap which, Stevens projects, will emerge by 2020/21. The Lib Dems stepped up with a pledge to inject £8bn, the additional amount Stevens says is needed alongside significant efficiency savings. This was accompanied with a call for a greater focus on mental health treatment as a key preventative tool and a plea for a cross-party review of NHS budgetary pressures. But these subtleties were largely overlooked by all sides in their presentation of the issue. The headline to take away, from the Lib Dem perspective, was simply that the Lib Dems were throwing down the gauntlet to the other parties to dig deeper in the coffers for more taxpayers’ money.
For their part, Labour were quick to cast doubt on how much of this pledge represented ‘new money’. Much like the ‘real terms vs. cash terms’ quibbles which also crop up throughout the spending wars, this is important on its own terms, but again misses the wider point of how the money – new or not – will be invested in securing better outcomes.
If we’re lucky, some kind soul will occasionally translate billions of pounds into thousands of nurses to help us get our little heads around what it all means. But that is no less crass and uninformative a way to fill the vacuum. Crucially, plans from any party to address the bulk of Stevens’ challenges – including the far greater sum of £22bn he identified as needing to be found from efficiencies and new ways of working, such as a shift in emphasis towards preventative care – were nowhere to be seen in the headlines.
This is at the crux of how arguments over ring fencing are damaging politics. Making trade offs – such as between investment in acute and preventative health interventions – is a messy, brave business. It’s also profoundly media-unfriendly. (It also, incidentally, seems likely to work far better when carried out on a comprehensible scale, rather than across a nation of millions.)
It’s far easier to keep throwing money at a problem than to say, ‘We can get better value by being more radical – but that means we might not be able to have our x-thousand nurses after all, and we have to decide collectively if we can live with that.’ It’s far less hassle to announce a ring fence than to say, ‘We’re going to invest heavily in early years provision because the evidence says it’ll make the greatest impact on inequality and productivity. Some of the cash could even come from schools budgets. Let’s have that debate – having a debate doesn’t make us anti-education’.
Unfortunately this brave, messy business is basically the cornerstone of what politics should be about. We need to support and champion those – whether from politics, government, the media or civil society – who are prepared to step up to the challenge of engaging with these issues. It’s only by showing that we are ready for this mature debate that we will get it.
The final Budget before the most unpredictable election in generations is perhaps not the place to look for sophisticated messaging. But as May 7th gets closer and the spending wars get bloodier, the question of how we can turn political energies towards breaking down silos, rather than building up fences, is becoming increasingly pertinent. It’s one that we need to keep asking.
Happy New Year.
Amidst the sales, broken resolutions and last-gasp boozing, the starting gun has apparently been fired for the general election campaign. Sit tight for a drip-drip of policy announcements, quickening to a trickle when manifestos are released and then drumming inexorably down in a nuance-free, grid-choreographed, ennui-infused drizzle until May.
Cutting taxes, raising taxes, a thousand more nurses, several thousand fewer immigrants, spending more or less on this or that, clamping down, loosening up. Pledges, guarantees, triple locks, pilots and trailblazers. How much difference does any of it actually make?
This is neither an anti-voting rant nor a paean to the small state but an attempt to highlight how this question – of what difference state policy or state intervention is actually making – is often obscured by our political culture of ‘initiativitis’. The perennial quest for new announcement fodder makes political discourse more difficult to interpret and less anchored in reality, whether it’s allegedly pledging the proceeds of a bankers’ bonus tax five times over to fund different initiatives, or allegedly twisting the truth about deficit reduction. In communications terms, these allegations are themselves part of the patchwork of ‘initiatives’: negative attacks and positive pledges form the two-part harmony of the comms grid until the crescendo of the election itself.
And so in the same campaigning spirit – I can announce today that the best way to get my vote is not to announce anything. Publish a blank manifesto. Make the phrase ‘zombie government’ into a compliment. Law me no laws, pledge me no pledge cards, initiate me no initiatives. Just promise to do absolutely nothing for five years and evaluate the heck out of it.
At a stroke: regulatory stability for business. Space for the real drivers of progress and change – civil society, the professions, enterprise, social and familial norms, cultural trends and freak episodes of skill, luck and weirdness – to find their feet. And an evidence base for the impact of current policies that is comprehensive, robust, joined up across departments, and has a great chance of influencing future policy, as there would be very little else to talk about.
There are plenty of reasons why this is utterly impractical – yet doing nothing might, paradoxically, be quite interesting. And just as a thought experiment, it might throw up some useful questions to ask ourselves when those election leaflets float through the letter box, pregnant with promises. Where does Government actually control the levers to make a difference, and where can it merely rearrange the deckchairs in the face of larger geopolitical, economic or cultural forces? How does a simplistic, vote-winning pledge on one subject affect other aspects of how the country is run? And how can we find out the answers to any of this if we keep tinkering incessantly without seeking truly to understand the consequences?
As a cross party consensus slowly emerges on the merits of devolving greater powers to cities and regions, the findings of the first two evidence reviews from the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – on employment training and business advice – are notable as much for the gaps they highlight as for the conclusions they draw.
David Cameron’s announcements on local authority and community incentives for permitting ‘fracking’ for shale gas in their local area have unsurprisingly divided opinion. Those in favour cite energy security, jobs and growth, while those against view the policy as a bribe to tempt struggling councils to gloss over serious environmental impacts. Beyond the actual fracking issue, however, examining these battle lines themselves tells you a fair bit about the state of public debate and decision making in this country – and the news isn’t great.
The principle that should be at the heart of this debate is about the necessity of weighing up all the costs and benefits in order to reach a rational decision. Clearly, this requires accurate evidence – in this case on subjects such as how much shale gas there may be in the UK, how much of it can be extracted, how cheap it is to extract, what are the local and global environmental consequences of extracting it, and what impact it would genuinely have on prices given the UK’s participation in European-wide and indeed global energy markets. But evidence alone is not enough: someone needs to weigh it up. Good policy requires institutions that have both the analytical capacity and the autonomy to process this evidence, interpret it in relation to the local context, use this to assess the benefits and costs of action and make a decision.
The debate shows how far we are from this being the case. If you accept the broad principle that costs and benefits relating to intangible aspects of the natural world and society can be weighted and compared – which is a worthwhile and interesting debate in itself – there is nothing inherently wrong with a financial incentive for councils or communities; it simply becomes one of the benefits which need to be weighed against the costs. It’s also not particularly radical. Most European countries have a far more decentralised taxation system than ours: something like retention of business rates by the local authority would be hard to take seriously as an incentive in Germany. Meanwhile, the principle of paying landowners compensation for the negative externalities of development is by no means new.
By getting stuck on this point, though, the debate limits itself: one person’s despicable ‘bribe’ that will inevitably skew the debate is another person’s ‘not good enough‘ (LGA) or ‘crumbs from the Treasury table‘ which has no chance of nudging decisions in the right direction. This doesn’t particularly move us on. A much more fruitful argument, which sadly I’ve seen more ‘below the line’ than above it, is ‘why fracking – why not renewables?’
Arguably there are already subsidies for renewables – though they tend to accrue to those producing it rather than local authorities and communities – and a similar, siloed debate on community funds related to onshore wind in particular has been in play fairly recently. But leaving aside again the specifics of the energy debate, this is getting us closer to the heart of the matter. Why reward a particular action or output – in this case fracking – when what we really need to incentivise, as a society, is action of whatever kind to ensure that our energy needs are met? Why give councils increased leverage, and by extension greater decision-making responsibility, over one part of the energy mix and not others? Boringly but importantly, for example, one of the biggest things councils can do in the short term to ensure energy needs are met is probably energy demand reduction through behavioural change and physical improvements such as insulation. Again, this is nowhere in this debate, partly because it’s boring, and partly because the story is ‘councils bribed to allow fracking’ and not ‘how can councils best help ensure our energy needs are met?’
This idea can and should be taken further. The RSPB, for example, commented, ‘Rather than being rewarded for protecting the natural environment, councils are getting their bonuses for letting fracking take place’. Must it be either / or and one size fits all? If both are important national objectives, we should be aiming to translate this into setting out the parameters within which empowered councils and communities can weigh up competing priorities, make choices and deal with the consequences. Taking a simple example, given that reducing carbon emissions is a national priority, the use of a carbon pricing mechanism as part of the incentive mix would seem appropriate. There are significant technical challenges (some of which have already been worked through) to setting a carbon price, figuring out the right way to set that against the fracking ‘bribe’ in a way that is meaningful for local authorities, etc. but the real question is whether there is the political will to allow a meaningful local debate which will inevitably play itself out in different ways in different places. Similarly, there are technical challenges around designing a compensation system that works for individuals and communities – I have been considering recently whether online crowdsourcing type platforms might provide some inspiration by allowing people to interact to set a price – but the real question is whether there is the political will to contextualise a practice currently viewed as ‘bribery’ as being a necessary and respectable part of a rational, fair broader decision-making system.
MP Barbara Keeley, whose constituency has seen anti-fracking protests, raises the point that the proposal on business rates ‘muddies the water to give councils two contradictory roles. One is a protective role, to check companies have safeguards. On the other hand, you have a cash strapped authority that’s lost £100m off its budget, like ours, that gets offered this cash incentive in business rates. The public involved in this, who live near the site, how can they trust the local council will make the right decision on this?’
It absolutely makes sense to highlight this tension and the conflicts of interest to which it could lead. But there’s no future in pretending that we can retreat into a simpler world where our institutions don’t have to take on these kinds of contradictory roles and competing priorities: with the need to find savings continuing, councils are experiencing this every day, and communities need to understand the realities of it. Rather than seeking to remove the ‘bribe’ and retreat to a mythical golden age of simplicity, we should be considering whether our councils and civil society institutions have the freedom, capacity and incentives to deal with the complex reality.
Edit: found this very interesting post after writing mine – it goes into a lot more detail on the arguments around who the beneficiaries of incentives are, whether incentives work, etc. and will probably be a refreshing read after the highfalutin’ rant above
Back after a long hiatus, mostly involving stopping small people falling down steps.
I’ve recently embarked on the Public Service Launchpad Scholarship programme, which aims to bring people together to work on solutions to public service problems. I believe I’ve identified a problem – or opportunity – and want to use this programme to help me think about solutions.
Would be interested in views and ideas (also working on boiling the below down to a couple of sentences in plain English…)
Seeking to engage communities in decision making around local public services is nothing new, but there are two big reasons why it is now more important than ever. The first and most obvious is budget cuts: with less money to go round it’s all the more important that people are engaged in setting out where their priorities lie. The second is demographic pressures – a high and increasing proportion of local public service budgets are being spent on a small proportion of the population in areas such as adult social care, leading to a situation which is increasingly unsustainable, not just financially but also in terms of people’s trust in public services and local politics.
In this context, engaging communities in shaping local public spending is crucial, yet current examples of such engagement are not bold enough to meet the challenge. Despite some genuinely innovative consultation methods, without a clear illustration of the trade offs at stake and a clear imperative to make a decision one way or another, communities tend to be resistant to all cuts or accept only cuts in those services which they do not access or do not understand.
These are reasons in themselves to improve engagement. But the urgency, ironically, could be amplified by what happens next in local public services. In the longer term, central Government has a limited set of options to help local public agencies make ends meet. Essentially, they can remove or pare back local government’s statutory duties, find more grant money to plug the gap, or give local areas more autonomy to design, deliver and finance services in new ways. From this set of unpalatable options for Government, increasing local autonomy may well end up as the only viable one.
Government has in fact started to take some tentative steps towards increasing local autonomy. However, the steps taken so far only emphasise the importance of mature and genuine engagement of communities. Initiatives such as Whole Place Community Budgets, as pioneered by the Tri-borough in London and elsewhere, are increasingly moving public services towards early intervention approaches, investing up front to reduce later costs. Yet diverting current spending to programmes that will take several years to pay off, such as early years education and preventative public health, is a hard sell in hard times. City Deals and other aspects of the local growth agenda similarly support local authorities to invest in future prosperity. Whilst eonomic growth is a far easier sell politically, investment in economic development still risks conflicting with current spending on services: economic development is not a statutory service and far harder to explain than bin collections or primary school places. Without genuine public engagement in assessing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and making a decision, the ability of areas to find ambitious solutions to improving people’s lives will be restricted.
Meanwhile, and perhaps more straightforwardly, the kinds of governance arrangements increasingly expected of Local Enterprise Partnerships and city regions by Government – such as combined authorities – are strengthening local autonomy in one sense, but also potentially concentrating local power in fewer hands, with local authority leaders increasingly powerful at the expense of executive members and backbenchers. The majority of local councillors risk being marginalised, continuing the trend of recent years and reducing communities’ routes to influence decision making.
Longer term, the prospect of more financial autonomy for local government – being pursued for example by the Core Cities and London – raises the stakes and introduces the possibility of a meaningful debate at local level on revenue raising and spending priorities. Yet we cannot take it for granted that public understanding of local public finances, and the trade offs that need to be made, will automatically improve in line with this trend towards more meaningful local choices.
A new approach is needed to ensuring public understanding of and engagement in local public spending decisions. This could reinvigorate the role of ward councillors, help councils maintain reputation and trust in times of austerity and increase public understanding of how local government works. By making clear the scale of the spending challenge in ways that make sense to communities, we could improve understanding of the fact that quality services have to be paid for, potentially encouraging the public support which has so far been largely lacking for innovative community-driven (or, to quote a phrase increasingly receding into nostalgia, ‘big society’) service delivery models.
I would like to collaborate with others on solutions in this area bringing together cost-benefit analysis, as carried out most prominently in this area by New Economy Manchester, and approaches such as participatory budgeting. This could be a commercial venture, open source tool or simply a suggested approach to put forward to local authorities and seek to pilot.
Drop me a line if you’re interested in discussing this!