Some local lessons from the Far East

By Heather Jameson | 25 February 2020

Demographics are difficult. Population statistics are about to fall off a cliff thanks to the rapidly declining birthrate. This will lead to a plummeting working-age population and a corresponding drop in the country’s tax take.

In rural areas and smaller towns, the demographic problems are exacerbated by an exodus of young people all leaving for the opportunities afforded by larger urban areas.

At the same time, the elderly population is rising – particularly the over-75s – putting pressure on social care and the public purse. Voter turnout is declining, leading to a lack of democratic engagement. And then there is the looming climate crisis and an accompanying search for efficient renewables to feed the growing consumer appetite for energy.

It may all sound like a familiar list of issues facing UK local government, but it is not. This is Japan, but the challenges are remarkably similar to those faced in the UK right now.

Last month, The MJ was invited to take part in the Japan Study Tour 2020, the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) annual trip to show senior officers in UK local government how their counterparts work in Japan. A once in a lifetime trip, it offered the opportunity to see local government working in a completely different country and culture. While there was a lot to learn, some of the key issues remain the same and it seems Japanese officers are grappling with the same problems that are perplexing their UK colleagues.

Eight of us arrived in Tokyo for the tour, alongside our Japan-based CLAIR guides and a representative from the Japan Local Government Centre, CLAIR’s UK base.

Our first day in Tokyo gave us a crash course in Japanese local government structures and issues from Professor Shunsuke Kimura of Meiji University. The two-tier system of Prefectures and Municipalities, headed up by a directly- elected Governor (in prefectures) or Mayor (in municipalities) and an assembly to provide scrutiny. Assembly members are predominantly male, with the vast majority aged 50-70.

Local government has control over police, fire, schools, welfare, adult social care, children’s social care, water, sewerage, local roads, public housing and skills training, split between the two types of authorities.

But there was one starkly different aspect of Japanese local government that really captured the imagination of the British delegation. Japanese authorities have the power to make their own laws and raise their own taxes – which may offer an opportunity for them to relieve the pressure when it comes to social care.

That’s not to say we didn’t see some examples of the work they are already doing to mitigate the issues. We visited a housing provider, Daiwa House Industry Co, where we were shown robotic assistance devices to help with social care: a bed that turns into a wheelchair, a video system to monitor social care patients, pedal wheelchairs and even a device to protect social care workers’ backs as they lift patients. But by far the biggest hit was Paro, a robotic seal used for pet therapy – who heckled throughout.

In Tsu City, social care prevention measures focused on community cooking and keep fit classes, identifying over-75s with poor diets through a Nutrition Patrol. As well as the health benefits, the scheme re-engages people in their local community. And a further bid to aid the elderly was made with a free public transport travel, ensuring older people could get out and about.

There was a packed itinerary, with a visit to a biomass fuel plant, a wind farm, a business centre and an extraordinarily clean recycling centre. In the capital, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government explained their ‘cap and trade’ programme to cut carbon emissions as part of the city’s climate change strategy – a world first in an urban area. The scheme will see increasing emissions targets, but will allow businesses to trade carbon reduction capacity.

But despite the huge efforts of our hosts to demonstrate the very best of what they do – and their extraordinary kindness and hospitality – it was the people we met that made the biggest impact.

From the extraordinary efforts of the staff in Tsu City – who organized everything from spot quizzes and selfie opportunities to temple visits – to the huge hospitality of the CLAIR staff, we were treated with the utmost care and kindness.

Having the opportunity to talk to those who worked in local government was a privilege – one not afforded to tourists. Our hosts were keen to learn from us too, to understand how we dealt with adult social care – and just how the National Health Service works.

Despite Japan’s reputation for technology, we found a fascinating mix of high tech rubbing alongside some practices that looked old fashioned to UK eyes. The robotics, the bullet train, vending machines and toilets provide a futuristic vision. But faxes are still commonplace, and the 5.15pm alarm which chimed the end of the working day seemed oddly paternal.

One Japanese host asked if we do teleworking in the UK. A phrase barely used in the UK now – it’s just working – the idea of hot-desking is alien. We were told that while the days of the traditional salaryman – a white collar office worker loyal to a corporation for his entire working life – are changing, Japan is not yet signed up to agile working and portfolio careers.

Communication was also different. Presentations, given in PowerPoint, with supporting notes are detailed and technical, rather than the ‘storytelling’ outcome-based style in vogue in the UK. But the city mascots were a massive hit – Tsu City’s tree fair and rice cake characters stole the show when they turned up to greet us. Every authority should have one.

Another glaring difference came from the question: ‘Do people in the UK aspire to have a career in local government?’ In a country with a traditionally low unemployment rate, there is still huge competition for local government jobs – which come with a good salary and a great deal of prestige. There is no difficulty in attracting talented young people as there is in UK local government.

Japan was an experience and a privilege, and I am truly grateful to CLAIR, our host cities and to the colleagues from the UK for making it so memorable. It didn’t provide the answers to all the questions facing local government in Britain, but there is a lot we can learn from each other.

To see more about the trip, follow #JST2020 on twitter. For more information on next year’s tour email mailbox@jlgc.org.uk

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