Whenever I get together with colleagues in local government, I am always struck by the dissonance between what government asks and expects of us and what is actually happening on the ground.
At this year’s Local Government Association (LGA) Conference government ministers and officials were very clear that the top two priorities for the ministry were housing and growth, yet the more I spoke to colleagues, the more I heard about schemes aimed at delivering homes and growth being imperilled – either by changes to our operating environment or by local opposition. I found a similar theme running through the SOLACE summit – sure there were some fantastic examples of regeneration, but there were also many, many examples of schemes being stopped in their tracks.
Opposition to development and to change goes back to time immemorial but the nature, breadth and ferocity of what we are facing seems to have changed in the past few years which led me to think about what has changed. Those of you who have been scouts or guides will be familiar with the ‘fire triangle’ which sets out the three components you need to make fire – fuel, oxygen and ignition. I think this works well as an analogy for the challenges we are facing.
Taking each component in turn:
- the fuel is the past decade of austerity – no-one can miss the changes residents have experienced over this time – whether it is waiting longer at A&E or for a GP appointment, swerving to avoid the omni-present potholes or paying for your children’s textbooks at school, people are primed to question where money is being spent and to imagine how money spent on capital schemes might be more appropriately spent on reinstituting services or facilities that have been cut.
- the ignition was Brexit – Brexit has accelerated, if not changed, the way people think and behave – it has eroded trust in politicians, institutions and experts, it has changed the way people consume information and it has pushed people to extremes, vacating the centre-ground. It has also led to political changes at the most recent elections.
- the oxygen is social media which allows people – often anonymously – to whip up opposition to or suspicion about whatever we are doing. With trust in institutions at an all-time low, people seem more willing to believe anonymous twitter accounts (often owned by those with a vested interest) than experts or politicians who are elected (and have a duty) to pursue the long-term interests of the places they represent.
Other factors are at play: behavioural economists and cognitive psychologists have long held the view that loss aversion is a powerful motivator - with people far more likely to avoid a loss than to make an equivalent gain. How many of us have faced a room of people fighting to oppose a development, a regeneration scheme or a planning application or had similar groups descending on meetings whilst struggling to elicit similar support from businesses, residents or stakeholders who strongly support such schemes. Information is also freely available – both information on council structures, decision-making processes, contracts and expenditure – and this is freely wheeled out against us often by those who at the same time accuse local authorities of a lack of transparency.
Brexit is also a factor. Whilst thousands of hours and millions of pages have been dedicated to the practical consequences of Brexit – the availability of medicines, the movement of goods and services and all else besides – I haven’t seen much written about the political consequences arising from the May elections where Brexit (coupled with the other components of the ‘fire triangle’) have led to many parties and councillors being elected on a ‘stop this’ or ‘do nothing’ ticket. During the SOLACE summit, I spoke to many chief executives and senior leaders facing the consequences of changes to political control which have often seen individuals opposing local plans or development or regeneration schemes moving from protest marches and barricades to the town hall. As a result, many chief executives are now grappling with new groups and independent councillors who don’t understand the constraints (financial, regulatory and legislative) within which we operate.
I have always been a fan of Sir Michael Lyons’ description of the role of local government – ‘place-shaping’ – shaping places both through our day-to-day activity but also through our longer-term role in building houses, infrastructure and facilities. My fear is that the combination of the centralised nature of UK PLC (and government’s attention being very much elsewhere), financial constraints, snap decisions on issues ranging from planning policies to Public Works Loans Board rates coupled with the challenges outlined above will see that vital ‘place-shaping’ role being imperilled for the foreseeable future.