A new report produced by Britain Thinks for the District Councils’ Network (DCN) and launched today at the DCN conference, highlights just how important it is for the public that local government operates close to communities and to places the public understand.
So, what follows are a few personal reflections on the report. It highlights clearly that the public identify most strongly with their district council, not only because districts provide those services most immediate to public needs, but because district councils can be most effective in bringing local people into local decision-making.
There is a lot to be learnt for both local and central government from the report’s exploration of the public’s view about local government as it shows the dissonance that can exist between what the public think and want from local government and what the centre wants the public to think and want from local government. An example of this dissonance is found in the powerful lesson in the report’s findings for those at the centre seeking to increase the size of local government and create huge new unitary councils: you risk distancing communities and the public from the services that are vital to them and from any meaningful input to local government decision making.
In a linked finding and another hammer blow to the unitarisers, the report shows the public have no antipathy towards two tier council areas, indeed they feel local government works well in such areas. No sign here of the mass confusion that unitary councils are said to clear up on behalf of the public. A note of caution is needed however, as the report shows the public have little knowledge of which council provides what – but that doesn’t seem to matter, especially as the public are clear about which services have a positive impact on their lives; district services. Maybe there is a job here for all councils to communicate more about what they do, but in today’s internet savvy world finding out who does what is straightforward and certainly not an issue that needs solving by massive local government reorganisation.
Another striking message from the report is that district councils have far stronger name recognition among the public than the county council and, quoting directly from the report: ‘Many two-tier residents can only name their district council.’ While this will make uncomfortable reading for counties, solace can be taken in that there is an indication here of what needs to be done to generate greater public recognition. Districts, on the other hand are, in the public mind ‘the council’. They are the organisation people identify with and know. Yes, it is important for the public to name their council because that way local government means something, is kept local and is about what you know. Who remembers Consignia? Or do you prefer the Post Office!
Knowing your council is important for building trust, and trust in public authorities is a vital ingredient in any democratic society at all levels of government. Trust binds the public and their institutions of government together and oils the wheels of decision making and the delivery of services. The report’s findings make pleasant reading for district councils as the research found that when asked which tier of government was the most ‘trusted to tackle the biggest local issues’, respondents opted strongly for district councils. Trust, among many other things, is a product of interaction, promises met and familiarity with an institution that is rooted in the locality.
There are lessons here for the Government’s levelling up policy: if the public trust their district councils so much, why exclude them as full partners in combined authorities? Or, why create huge new unitary councils and risk hoovering up district powers and roles to place them in an institution remote from localities? The answers are clear in the report: the public want local government to be local – the Government however, not so much.
The report deserves a read at all levels of local government and particularly in Westminster and Whitehall; scrutiny committees and full council meetings across England should be debating this report and so too should Parliament.
The centre needs to listen and respond positively to the messages in the report and use it to inform its own policy development. The report needs consideration at the centre because there is, in fact, some very good news for all councils within its pages: On almost all measures, the public trust local government more than national government to tackle local issues.
We can only but hope the voters remember that at the local elections and ‘May the 4th’ be with local government and not a referendum on national government.
Colin Copus is emeritus professor of local politics at De Montfort University and visiting professor Ghent University