Comment Blog 8 February, 2024

Introducing Reimagining the Local State

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

 

Something extraordinary is beginning to happen in the governance of England. While central government remains much as it always has been, local government is undergoing a transformation: unevenly, not all at once – but with consequences that could drastically reshape the relationship between citizen and State.  

First, there is the return of regionalism, long thought of as England’s ‘missing tier’ of government. For a decade, the Greater London Authority was England’s only, lonely example of region-scale governance, the result of a stalled attempt to establish comprehensive regional assemblies in the Labour years. Then, in 2011, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority arrived. By the end of 2024 there will be 13 combined authorities, each governing populations of between 600,000 and 3 million. The government’s explicit ambition is ultimately for organisations of this sort to cover every part of England.  

Second, there is the shift in community expectations. The levelling up agenda – by turns derided, embraced, or declared dead by commentators and local leaders – nevertheless reflects a broad national hunger for strengthened local control, reduced regional inequalities, and a greater role for the participation and leadership of communities themselves. Labour now promises a ‘take back control’ bill, and many local authorities are experimenting with innovative approaches, bringing community perspectives and service users into local decision-making and priority-setting. 

Third, there are changes afoot in the way that local government is funded. Manchester and the West Midlands, home to the most ‘mature’ combined authorities, are now promised single, flexible, longer-term ‘department style’ funding settlements. Government is piloting highly simplified and streamlined funding models in 10 other local authorities. Fiscal devolution, the white whale of English localism policy, is once again under active debate 

But this is also a historic moment in another, more troubling sense. England’s local government sector faces major financial difficulties, with growing instability fuelled by the scale and complexity of demands on public services. Councils are again searching for efficiencies even after many years of fiscal retrenchment. Meanwhile, the extent of overcentralisation in this country remains extraordinarily high, so that difficulties and solutions both are often expected to filter down from above rather than emanate from below.  

Just this week, the Government confirmed a beefed-up funding package for local government, alongside expectations that each council should submit new ‘productivity plans’ to Whitehall. These are a mixture of the reasonable (councils are asked to identify areas where modernisation, technological improvement, or service transformation could boost efficiency), the very welcome (local leaders are also invited to identify ways in which central government can remove barriers), and the strangely, controversially specific (with reference to “discredited staff Equality, Diversity and Inclusion programmes”) which will be sure to rile the sector.  

Ultimately, central policy for local government will always, like all policy, run the gamut from the inspired to the baffling. But in the absence of genuine decentralisation, even brilliant policy will seem imposed, and can never benefit fully from the contextual tailoring and responsiveness that is possible at more local scales. 

There are many obstacles against such decentralisation. Even the varied structure of English local government stymies the chances for deeper devolution. The complex patchwork of local government in England (single-tier or two-tier? Parished or unparished? Combined authority present or not?) means that some people live with a single governance ‘tier’ in their area, while others have to wrap their heads around four. Making policy that works in all of these places and where the appropriate scale of management is always clear is an enormous challenge. 

All of this leads us to a crucial moment for the redistribution of power across England, a tipping-point. The momentum of recent reform and devolution could usher in a decade of transformation, and enable the emergence of a more decentralised, capable, and community-connected state. Or the many obstacles could once again prove to be too much, and our overcentralised norms, disempowered communities, and overwhelmed public services will become more deeply entrenched than ever.  

That is why Reform is today launching Reimagining the Local State, the latest chapter in our systematic re-examination of the many assumptions that underly the British state. This programme aims to kickstart a radical policy debate on the future of local government, and ultimately to tip the balance in favour not of retrenchment and the status quo, but of a renaissance in localism. 

We envision a system of fantastically capable, trusted local government that operates with autonomy, achieves financial sustainability, and collaborates brilliantly with the local people that it serves. To get there, we will explore the changes – be they structural, financial, constitutional, or cultural – that will be needed, and set out policy ideas for their achievement.  

We will identify best practice – in terms of innovation, service design, citizen participation, and community coproduction – and promote it. We will identify policies to help make a huge success of future devolution. And we will examine the best routes for genuine resilience and sustainability across the sector.  

If you want to be part of this conversation, then we want to hear from you: this exciting programme of work has only just begun.