Local Government in England – Forty years of decline

A study commissioned by Unlock Democracy from De Montfort University.  Unlock Democracy is campaigning to reverse the centralisation of power from local government to central government in England and restore it back to local communities. 

Executive summary

Communities thrive best when those who serve them locally are accountable, engaged, listen to residents’ concerns, and have a vision for their area with the power to implement it. This is what local authorities have the potential to deliver. But when autonomy is denied, not only are elected representatives left disempowered, but community voices are stifled and expectations dashed too. 

1. CENTRAL-LOCAL RELATIONS: CENTRALISATION ON STEROIDS? 

To deliver this vision, a balanced relationship between central and local government is essential. Yet, over time, the balance has increasingly tilted towards the centre, leaving local government and the communities it serves weakened.

  •  Until the late 1970s, councils could be defined as ‘sovereign’: they had jurisdictional integrity, a high level of autonomy on key services, and democratic legitimacy. The lack of constitutional protection for local government has allowed a shift from a model of the ‘Sovereign Council’ to a more disempowered local government.
  •  Central government has been deploying a wide range of ‘tools of central control’. Central-local relations have been ‘juridified’; secondary legislation has been increasingly used as an indirect, yet powerful mechanism of re-centralisation; contractualisation and ‘conditional localism’ have become the norm.
  •  The combined use of these tools has had damaging effects. Local government’s autonomy and power – and that of the communities it serves – have been eroded by the centre.

2. LOCAL GOVERNMENT FINANCE: WEAKENED BY A THOUSAND CUTS 

Central control over funding is key to the character of central-local relationships in England and determines local government’s degree of autonomy. 

  • Since the late 1970s, different administrations have used the tool of funding controls in different ways. But the direction of travel has been clear: loss of financial autonomy has led to a loss of local government autonomy. 
  • In recent years, there have been attempts at reversing this trend – with councils being able to raise and retain more income locally. And yet, this has coincided with severe financial constraints and centrally prescribed targets, meaning more local discretion over inadequate funding can, in turn, exacerbate a ‘postcode lottery’ in service delivery.
  • The Covid-19 crisis has now put additional strains on an already fragile system of funding. Many local authorities were already on the brink of collapse after 10 years of austerity: the lack of adequate support from the centre is now leaving them with no choice but to cut further essential services for the communities they serve. Meanwhile, many councils may not be able to survive the ‘perfect storm’ generated by the Covid-19 crisis.
  • As reflected in recent research (NAO 2021; IFS, 2020) the system of local government cannot be fixed anymore with short-term interventions, and requires to be stabilised in the long term.

3. DISMEMBERING LOCAL GOVERNMENT SERVICES 

Until the late 1970s, local government was recognised as the principal local player, with relative discretion and autonomy. This trend has radically changed over the past decades.

  •  Councils have been stripped of many of their primary service delivery roles. At best, local authorities are now one provider amongst many, and face increasing difficulty in maintaining strategic oversight on key services.
  •  Councils have, at the same time, faced financial pressures and the imposition of additional duties which have perpetuated the trend to outsourcing and alternative methods of delivery.
  •  As a result, councils now have responsibility without power in many, crucial, policy areas – such as education, housing and social care. l Changes have been complex and fast paced, creating a ‘tangled web’ of management, delivery, fragmentation, lack of clear lines of accountability and muddled structures.

4. SQUEEZING DEMOCRACY OUT OF THE LOCAL: REPRESENTATION DEFICITS AND ‘TANGLED WEBS’ OF ACCOUNTABILITY 

The role of local government as representative of a community, as well as provider of collective services, has been steadily weakened through central government reforms implemented over the past decades. 

  • Local government’s representation and legitimacy has been reduced: the size of councils has grown, the number of councillors has fallen, and the introduction of ‘backbench’ councillors has left many local representatives playing only residual roles.
  •  Within councils, the introduction of the executive/cabinet model was meant to improve accountability. Instead, it has arguably introduced a more managerial model, while also fostering the creation of ‘two tribes’ of councillors, with very different leverage over local affairs. As a result, the influence of the average councillor has been reduced, and the role of the councillor has been increasingly ‘managerialised’ and ‘depoliticised’.
  •  Councillors now also sit at the centre of a maze of multiple accountabilities. They are under increasing pressure to develop different skills, capabilities and modes of oversight that are often difficult to ‘juggle’. In this way, there is a risk that ‘accountability gaps’ emerge, leaving communities disempowered. 
  • New ‘tangled webs of accountability’, especially over service delivery, have also coincided with local government being bypassed by a ‘new magistracy’ of unelected bodies, and having to operate within an organisational and institutional arrangement with fuzzy boundaries. 

The erosion of local democracy has been substantial, putting into jeopardy local government’s ability to continue providing a vital democratic link for the communities it is elected to serve. For the sake of local democracy the tide must be turned. 

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