The pandemic has provided local authorities with the opportunity to show how effective they can be and how important it is to be able to respond to local circumstances. We are good in a crisis and we’re not bad at managing budgets. So why has the relationship with central government deteriorated?
?In a virtual debate organised by The MJ and involving ?a cross section of chief executives one of them stated that if central government wasn’t listening then we had to ask ourselves why. There was a recognition that whilst our difficult relationship may in part be due to the culture in Whitehall, nevertheless we had to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Perhaps we should start with the culture of local government. As I am writing this I am watching a You Tube video of a Zoom meeting at Handforth Parish Council. The video is trending because of the bad behaviour of certain councillors. There are several aggressive exchanges in which the committee chair and his deputy chair are both rude and intimidating towards the female mediator. This is not an isolated incident I was present at such a meeting in another authority where a police officer was in attendance at the request of the council due to the behaviour of one councillor and a section of the public gallery at the previous meeting.
This is not a problem restricted to parish councils. Concern about the behaviour of councillors across local government has been raised nationally due to increased reports of bullying and harassment of officers and other councillors. As a director in a large county council I regularly witnessed rude and intimidating behaviour in the Overview and Scrutiny committee by one member. He was an exception but nevertheless he was never to my knowledge sanctioned.
It may involve a very small minority of members but ever since outsourcing services became an accepted way of reducing cost there have been concerns about the way large contacts have been awarded. I was a senior manager in a large authority where the leader and chief executive remain on police bail whilst investigations continue into allegations of corruption and witness intimidation. These are still isolated incidents but Transparency International in a recent report expressed concern that the conditions in which corruption could thrive were now present in local government and the previous system of checks and balances had been. ‘eroded or deliberately removed’. These conditions included ‘?.. low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all’.
Bad behaviour, bullying, harassment and sexism are not limited to local government. There have been high profile cases in both the Scottish and British Parliament. Labour and Conservative governments have been accused of cronyism in the past. The culture in local government has given rise for concern, but it is not an adequate explanation for the deterioration in the relationship between local government and central government.
This relationship has historically been one of mistrust. Central government pull the levers and expect something to happen. Frustration at procrastination or lack of action has over successive governments led to tactics like ‘ring fencing’ money to restrict and direct how local government spends it. Housing and education have been taken from local authority control as a way of speeding up changes central government wanted to see. Often the council is of a different colour to that of the party in government, setting up a tension. Over recent years even councils controlled by same party as that in government can’t be relied on not to be critical of the government’s policies and funding allocation. Both play game of ‘don’t blame us’.
As governments have become more ideological driven they have become more determined to ensure their agenda is implemented at a local level and this has meant bypassing local government or controlling it more tightly. Labour’s Tony Blair claimed the public didn’t care who ran services as long as they were value for money - which was code for increasingly creating opportunities for others to run the services instead of local government. Successive Conservative governments have started to encourage outsourcing council run services in the belief that this will reduce costs and improve efficiency. And of course for over ten years we have had a policy of fiscal austerity in which public sector budgets have been dramatically and painfully reduced, none more so than that of local authorities.
If local authorities complain too loudly and too publicly about the way they are treated they risk being considered ‘hostile witnesses’ and resistant partners. If they instead make their case behind closed doors, hope to be judged on its merits and refrain from criticising in public they surrender their most potent weapon, public opinion.
Given recent history it would be surprising if the relationship between central government and local authorities had not deteriorated. The pandemic has given local authorities the opportunity to shine and demonstrate to government that we can work effectively together. The challenge, post pandemic, is to find other common agendas and increase central governments confidence in local government.
Blair Mcpherson is a former director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk