Last Thursday (28th April) at St Albans we held the first of what will hopefully become an annual Mayor’s Civic Pride award. It was a fantastic evening which had come about as a result of a wish on the part of the Mayor and the political administration to recognise the immense efforts and resources of the local community. It was an evening first and foremost of stories both of bravery and quiet perseverance of individuals, volunteers, business leaders and public servants. A clear theme emerged from the videos of those nominated and their nominating colleagues friends and relations and that was a sense of surprise that people thought they were special. It was great to hear their stories and as with any good event I both laughed and had a lump in my throat at various points. The evening was developed through close working with the voluntary sector and the local paper, the Hertfordshire Advertiser. It provided a good reminder of why we have a thing called local government, what we can do in communities to marshal effort and how to address local needs if only we can create the ambition to do so.
There is an interesting tension here with what might appear to be a completely contrasting thrust in an excellent Financial Times article by Matthew Engel: British Institutions: Local Government. In it he points not just to the lack of localism in the British governance structure, but also to a combination of limited public aspiration and local government reticence, resulting in paralysis in civic leadership. I do not agree with the whole article, such as the suggestion made by an interviewee, Michael Taggart, that 90% of Councils are led by Chief Executives as a result of weak political leadership. My experience is that most Chief Executives and directors put considerable work into finding ways to facilitate political leadership and to engage communities in both electoral and deliberative democracy. However there is much that has more than a ring of truth, particularly the strategic flaccidity of some parts of the government system in the face of current financial challenges.
Where I do agree with Matthew Engel is the propensity for local politics to be distracted by detail and to miss the bigger picture. However this is understandable because often provision of the play-park, the state of pot-holes and the frequency of a bin collection are what the public are most likely to feel able to comment upon. It takes considerable effort to engage people in, say, a new tourism development initiative or the need to work closely with the biggest local businesses to develop local skills. I also agree about his observations on local leadership’s strength in other countries, interesting in the way that this seems to depend on whether power has grown up federally or been handed down from a central power, more on this another time hopefully.
It is just possible that the Localism Bill, through the Power of General Competence, contains the solution to some of the points that Michael Engels raises. It gives Councils the broadly the same freedoms as individuals or businesses, namely right to act unless legally prevented to do so, rather than only being able to do what is legally allowed. Its purpose is to foster councils’ “greater innovation and a new, more confident and entrepreneurial approach which should, in turn, lead to greater efficiencies, improved partnership working and the ability to help their communities in ways previously outside their remit”. There is a real opportunity here to set out what is right for a local community and then to relentlessly pursue it. My hope is that Local Government grasps and defends this provision because it is the key to addressing the leadership deficit raised in Engels’ article. However I am concerned that there might be a loss of nerve because whilst many have a hatred of guidance and tightly prescribed duties, some regret has recently been expressed when the ‘wrong’ duties or guidance have been dissolved.
How then should we seek to use this general power? Through informed debate with politicians and the local public about the strategic priorities for the place and its people and engagement with all those, from whatever sphere, who can influence its future. This cannot happen overnight and will require a long-term, outward facing view to be taken by politicians, other community leaders and officials in working to make clear to the public the options they have and the ways they might engage. In short, we need to go and talk to people through the channels they use now, rather than polish-up old ways of working and wait for them to come, whilst also carefully developing the democratic foundations of what we do.
A comment on my initial circulation of the FT article posed the following: ‘I am at a loss to explain why there is a lack of engagement in local political affairs in the UK. Why do we not seem to care enough to act? … How do we engage citizens to make a difference for themselves?’ I think that the article is correct when it points to a lack of public engagement in the political sphere, but I am also aware that such complaints have now been regular for decades. For to engage in such ways demands an understanding of ideas of individual action for the common good, a theme that has been running through a number of the posts here. I believe that by providing channels which demonstrate and communicate the opportunities, options and consequences of engagement in ways that people can engage with, rather than bemoaning the fact that people do not come forward, we can invigorate communities and provide people with the means to steer change.
Returning to the civic awards, as well as examples of individual heroism and great work by local voluntary groups, there were also examples of local impact arising from joint work by public servants from different agencies, working with local communities and politicians from all three tiers of local government to make a difference. There are many examples of where local politicians and local people have managed to make a difference to their localities and have a clear idea of what they are seeking to achieve. This is as likely to arise from the long hard slog by committed local politicians and officials as from bringing in new management or indeed the impact of a new local administration. What sets such success apart, I believe is leadership and joint work between elected members, the public and officials based on clear priorities, policies and financial strategies. As with a lot in life it’s about aspiration, outlook and communication.