The wholehearted revival of local government is essential

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Whilst this country has been obsessed by Brexit, austerity, balanced budgets and multiple failings by one Tory leader after another the reality is that a whole tier of government, and the services that it supplies, has been laid to waste. As new surveys reported in the Guardian reveal, local government  is now on the brink of extinction. Once the driving force of local economies and innovation in transport, energy supply, education, a great deal of entertainment, housing and social provision, local government is now but a shadow of its former self, and what is left does in far too many cases look as if it will fail due to lack of funding in the near future.

This is no small deal. The welfare of millions of vulnerable people, including considerable numbers of children, is dependent upon council services, which many do not now know how to supply, and admit that they may fail to deliver.

Significant parts of our green economy are also dependent on local council services.

And the residue of so many services that once defined civic pride that in turn represented belief in the places where we lived and the people who lived there are now facing the likelihood of closure forever. 

How did we move from an era when councils generated power, provided local transport, built and managed social housing, managed schools, provided leisure facilities of so many sorts, supported adult learning, and provided critical social services to the situation where many local authorities face bankruptcy? I would argue that this is because of the operation of the cowardly state.

The cowardly state is the exact opposite of the Courageous State that I described in my 2011 book with that title. What happens in the cowardly state is that a neoliberal politician, obsessed by centralised macroeconomic control of the economy and a desire to shrink the state at all costs so long as it has limited impact upon their own political fortunes, will close, privatise, outsource and simply abandon public services where anyone but they can be blamed for this happening with an indifference as to the consequence that is profoundly sociopathic.

I would argue that this is exactly what has happened to local government since 2010. The impact of austerity has been offloaded by central government onto local authorities. Sixty per cent of central government funding for local services has been lost over that period. The result is apparent. Services have collapsed. Outsourcing is failing. The most vulnerable have been failed. Protection has not been available to those who need it. And the policy has itself been proven to be bankrupt. Tory Northamptonshire - which has had to declare insolvency - is the evidence of that. Other Tory councils have warned that they may follow suit. The evidence of today’s report is that the likelihood of this happening is now not remote, but commonplace. Whatever the model for local government was that the Tories had, it has failed. And they have failed people with it.

This is not a situation that is easy to reverse, for all sorts of reasons. Good people are not attracted to be councillors when the rewards are low and the prospect of failure, for which you may well feel a personal responsibility even if that is inappropriate, is high.

The same is true of good managers and staff, who all have their own personal breaking points, which many will have reached. 

And the culture of solving problems locally has also been dissipated. Communities don’t work together to solve problems now: that is something we outsource to a company to achieve, which it now (predictably) transpires that they are unable to do because they do not have anything remotely like that built into their purpose, and so ethos. 

We do, then, have a system brought to its knees by deliberate choice of a political system, and most especially a political party, intent on destroying it even though that objective would appear to be the exact opposite of its supposed Conservative purpose. 

Can this be reversed? The obvious answer is that of course it can be, but that this will take time. To rebuild organisations always takes that. But the process is not just one of providing piecemeal life support systems to keep emergency services functioning. Important as that funding is, what is required is a repurposing for local government.

That means we have to reimagine why we needed local government in the first place. This means we have to rethink the concept of community. We have to imagine the ideal of social cohesiveness. And envisage the advantage that comes from cooperation rather than competition. We have to reintegrate, and not separate. Whilst funding, borrowing and the governance of local government have all to be reimagined to make sure that they are fit for purpose, which the most cursory reading of Private Eye will reveal is not always the case now.

And why do we need to address this Cinderella of political activities? Simply because where we live matters. And how we treat each other in the communities where we are matters. And how we protect the weakest is the surest indication of how strong we really are.  Whilst greening our world so that it might survive will necessarily require an increasing emphasis on all that is local.

 The demise of local government is now likely unless something is done. We cannot take that risk. Nothing less than its wholehearted revival is required if we are to rebuild communities fit to live in.