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Councillors are central to unlocking devolution’s transformative potential

Tuesday 4 October 2016


Mile End Institute researcher Andrew Walker argues that councillors need to be better involved in devolution to ground the project within civic society. 

The state in its current form and function is ill-suited to achieve the ambitious, broad, and perhaps daunting goals that have been set for the devolution project. 

These include, but are not limited to: inclusive economic growth; developing a highly skilled workforce equipped to participate in the modern knowledge economy; joined-up transport; strategic housing; not to mention health and social care integration, with control over a £6bn budget and management of the £2bn shortfall in the budget.

In many ways Devo-Manc is an experiment, which, if it succeeds, could herald a radical new direction in governance. 

But that success is unlikely to come via the local state making efficiencies here and there, while otherwise carrying on as normal. 

Over and above a relocation of where power lies, it will have to entail qualitative differences in the way the state functions and relates to citizens.

And coupled with that shift should be a re-imagining of the role of local elected councillors to allow for new kinds of agency and representation.

Undefined role

It is striking how absent local councillors have been from the devolution debate. Advocates and critics alike have focused on the mayoral model and the virtues or otherwise of agglomeration economics. 

Others contest that what is on offer is not devolution at all, but delegation of various functions to local government, without the requisite powers to effect necessary change. 

Others still have criticised the secretive way in which these deals have been agreed, highlighting the lack of public consultation and scrutiny. 

But few have asked what role councillors will actually play connecting citizens with the state.

Though local government has always lacked a firm legal and constitutional grounding, its development was closely related to that of modern citizenship and representation. 

After its inception in modern form during the industrial revolution in the early 19th Century, local government’s powers and remit expanded rapidly. 

In the 20th Century councils took on steadily more power and the spread of electoral democracy continued in local government right up to its ‘golden age’ in the 1920s and 1930s.

The retrenchment of central control began during the reconstruction programme that followed World War II and continued apace following Tony Crosland’s ‘The Party’s Over’ speech, and again under Margaret Thatcher. 

The Conservatives developed a profound mistrust of councils, and councillors in particular, during their 18 years in power between 1979 and 1997.

The abolition of the Greater London Council and other metropolitan counties should be seen as part of this trend.

Later, William Waldegrave argued that responsive local government services should not have to rely on the accountability and legitimacy of electoral representation. Councils came to be seen more and more as implementation units for enacting central government policy.

New Labour was also dismissive of local representatives and the emphasis on responsiveness would re-emerge after 1997 under the guise of ‘what works’ and the ‘best value’ agenda.

Civic capacity

Localism in many of its recent guises has been, for noble reasons, about empowering community groups and citizens to take on and run services. 

But, as Jane Wills notes in her recent book, this has hinged largely on civic capacity and social capital. 

In places where such things are rarer, this includes a representative link with the state. But this has received little consideration and the proliferation of unelected and non-governmental bodies continues apace.

Local enterprise partnerships, for example, have a prominent role in the devolution deals proposed so far. 

Meanwhile, Heseltine’s fondness for directly elected mayors, adopted by George Osborne as an essential quid pro quo for local empowerment (‘I won’t impose this model on anyone, but nor will I settle for anything less’), is sure to have unknown, or unintended consequences for councillors in city regions.

Space for representation

In their recent paper, Blunkett, Flinders et al argue that the way in which devolution has been pursued up to now throws the characteristic inertia and resilience of the British political tradition into sharp relief. 

But whether the current programme represents continuity or change, a break with the ‘Westminster model’ or another way to make efficiencies, is the key question.

In order to represent genuine change in the state, flexibility and responsiveness will have to be designed into the system.

Central to that question is the role of local representation. 

It is particularly telling that the current programme was directed by the Treasury, with an emphasis on efficiency, spending and growth, with little consideration so far given to how new forms of representation, identity, agency and policy making may develop in devolved areas.

But there may still be an opportunity here to address the problem identified at the national level by Peter Mair, instead by rebuilding the space for politics and representation at the local level. 

Elected councillors have a very direct connection with the communities they represent. Perhaps it is that which should be unlocked to reveal the transformative potential in devolution.

Andrew Walker is a doctoral researcher with the Mile End Institute working on our project on devolution in local government in co-operation with the Local Government Information Unit.

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