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Expert researchers back campaign to bring back power to local government


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Academic experts who specialise in local government research have today published a detailed report that supports a new campaign for giving more power back to councils across England.

Members of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) were commissioned by Unlock Democracy – a not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for an inclusive democracy that puts power in the hands of people – to produce a thorough analysis of the erosion of local democracy over the last 40 years.

The in-depth report, ‘Local Government in England – 40 Years of Decline’, is being used by Unlock Democracy’s for its latest campaign, Turning the Tide, which aims to reverse the centralisation of power from local government to central government in England and restore it back to local communities.

Turning The Tide Report
Researchers at DMU's LGRC have produced the in-depth report

“We’ve produced a very comprehensive, critical review of key publications about local government reforms since the late 1970s,” explained Dr Arianna Giovannini, deputy director of the LGRC. “The end result is a diagnoses of the key issues – from lack of constitutional protection, to loss of funding, and hollowing out of services and democracy – that have led to a steady erosion of local government autonomy to the present day.”

With the largest round of local elections in recent history just over two weeks away, on May 6, Unlock Democracy’s Turning the Tide campaign will see supporters lobbying council leaders and candidates and pressing them to back a pledge to revive local government.

Founder member of Unlock Democracy, Phil Starr, said: “Millions of people will be going out to vote on May 6 and they need to know that their votes can make a difference giving them a real say in what happens in their communities. The Covid crisis has shown us just how much we need strong local structures.”

Since 1997, the inception of a process of political devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in England, has set the four nations of the UK on very different trajectories. While local government is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in England local authorities remain under the tight grip of central government.

There is also no written constitutional protection for local government in England. As a result, local government’s position has become increasingly subject to the whims of the centre.

“Our report brings into sharp relief the extend to which central constraints and an over-centralisation of power and resources have played against local government, with negative impacts on communities across England,” said Dr Giovannini.

AG1
Dr Arianna Giovannini, deputy director of the LGRC

As an internationally recognised centre of excellence for research on local government, Unlock Democracy approached experts from the LGRC to produce the report.

Working alongside colleagues Professor Steven Griggs, director of the LGRC, and Neil Barnett, research fellow at the LGRC, Dr Giovannini co-authored the report after exhaustive reviews of academic texts, official government documents, select committee reports and thinktank analyses.

The research involved assessing the state of local government in England and documents how local government powers, finance, responsibilities and autonomy have been eroded by successive governments since 1979.

“Our research shows that reform local government reform in England has been a persistent feature over the past 40 years – and yet, it has been pursued primarily to respond to ‘efficiency needs’ set by the centre.

“Over time a new form of central-local relations has emerged: one which is undermining previously held assumptions about local government’s role in our political system and its invaluable role in building a strong democracy,” said Dr Giovannini.

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Find out more about the Local Governance Research Centre

“There seems to be an assumption that sovereignty is something that belongs in Westminster but actually that’s not necessarily true – in a healthy democracy power should not reside in the hands of few at the centre.

“In our report we use the model of the ‘sovereign council’ to show that up until the late 1970s local government was the primary focus of democratic activity, with direct responsibility for the provision of a very wide range of key services – such as education, housing, social services, transport and planning – that underpin the day-to-day life of local communities. Our analysis shows how that autonomy has been chipped away at over the last 40 years.

“When you put together all the pieces of the jigsaw of the reform of local government, what emerges is a very stark picture that shows this process of erosion of local democracy has not happened by chance. It has been strongly directed by central government.”

Key findings from the Local Government in England – 40 Years of Decline report include:

  • From the late 1970s onwards, there has been a considerable shift away from the model of the ‘sovereign council’ towards a more disempowered local government.
  • Local government reform in England has been a persistent feature over the past forty years. The ‘tools of central control’ adopted by Whitehall to achieve this have changed under different administrations, but the direction of travel has been clear and consistent, with more and more powers being increasingly chipped away from local authorities.
  • This erosion of local autonomy has been enacted through the increased resort to law courts and legalisation of central-local relations, but has also often come ‘in disguise’. The use of secondary legislation has spiralled, allowing the centre to extend further its hold on local government through the backdoor.
  • The financial autonomy that local government enjoyed in the past has come under increased top-down constraints. Local government is bearing the brunt of severe cuts, which it is legally obliged to implement. While imposed by the centre, it is left to local government to deal with the impacts of cuts on communities.
  • Local government services have been hollowed out through the increase use of outsourcing, and now local authorities finds themselves operating within a complex, expanding web of partnerships that dilute considerably accountability.
  • Reforms to leadership models within councils were meant to improve accountability. Instead, they have created new divides, and the role of the councillor has been increasingly ‘managerialised’ and ‘depoliticised’. This is generating a growing democratic deficit.

Dr Giovanni said: “Local councils provide the first point of contact between politics and people. Local government is the backbone of our democracy and must regain its ‘sovereignty’. It needs greater independence, financial autonomy and constitutional protection.

“With local elections coming up, we have to make people aware of what’s happening so that they can help turn the tide of overcentralisation. Ultimately, we need a system of local government that is sustainable in the long term, and can count on the powers and resources that councils require to respond to the different needs of their own communities better.”

As well as campaigning in the lead up to local elections on May 6, Unlock Democracy will also share the Local Government in England – 40 Years of Decline report with politicians at a national level, relevant professional associations and key stakeholders involved in the debate.

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, added: “We must turn the tide against the relentless centralisation we've seen over recent decades. It's time to restore power to local government and local communities. Whitehall doesn't know best. More decisions taken locally will lead to more accountability, better government and a healthier democracy. Councillors and candidates from all parties know this and we urge them to get behind our campaign.”

Posted on Friday 16th April 2021

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