Local government living with the pandemic and looking ahead
We are in the eye of this storm – there is no telling how or when it might recede. For the optimists, the New Year is when we can begin “going back to normal”. For the pessimists, a date well into next summer feels more likely.
But what if we don’t – or shouldn’t – go back to “normal” at all? What if the pandemic causes us to significantly change the way that we live and work? What if we chose to grasp the opportunity to introduce radical change? What impact will that have on us, in our sector?
There’s no small amount of discussion at the moment on the permanent shifts that we might see as we emerge from the pandemic. Some of that discussion reflects on local government and its role at the centre of communities. NLGN, for example, have carried out research on the rise of mutual aid networks, linking it to their wider thinking around the emergence of a more community-focused form of local government. Localis have produced work on local economic resilience – and an associated need for decentralisation. The LGA has produced significant work in recent months on climate change (including a publication co-written by us on scrutiny of climate change); the impacts of lockdown and recovery on emissions and people’s thinking on sustainability in general suggests this will be a central issue in the coming years.
But there will be a pressure to return to “business as usual” as well. People crave familiar normality. Other developments are likely to push the sector in, perhaps, different directions. Reorganisation may hinder our ability to think creatively about the long term – continued uncertainty over the future of social care and council finances overall may do the same.
These competing possibilities all raise connected challenges for democratic governance and scrutiny. There’s a risk that unless we think now about what the future might look like, we will be condemned to act in a state of constant reaction for the first part of this decade, shifting our approach unstrategically to cope with problems as they emerge. There’s much to be said for an iterative approach of course – we can’t predict everything right now. But a bit of prediction might help us to understand what foundations we might want and need to put in place.
So, what possible futures are there – and what might these scenarios mean for local governance?
Scenario 1: community nirvana
Local government reinvents itself to be driven by the needs of people on a street-by-street level, upending traditional accountabilities. There is a wholesale shift to the “community paradigm” of working.
Government reforms (perhaps inadvertently) give councils the space to transform their structures and ways of working to accommodate this. For example, council restructures (although not nationwide) lead, where they happen, to an increase in the role and importance of community and parish councils, including large numbers of new parish councils in urban areas. Even in places where reorganisation does not happen, this trend of pushing power down to parish and community councils continues. More powers are devolved directly to street and community level with councils as guarantors of services rather than being direct providers. In other respects, the “council” as an institution ceases to exist, becoming more of a patchwork of people with expertise and resources to support this local activity. Local people and areas join up to design and deliver services at scale – like social care and children’s services.
Scenario 2: democratic renaissance
In this scenario, the takes the opportunity to to experiment and move away from traditional ways of working. More councils begin to actively experiment with novel approaches to decision-making, with new combined authorities catalysing a more regular and deeper use of citizens’ assemblies and other mechanisms to contribute to major, strategic decisions at a sub-regional level. This is supplemented by a deepening of community working at the very local level, with existing trends around co-production (for example, in neighbourhood planning) developing and accelerating – perhaps informed by the development of mutual aid during the pandemic.
While Government’s reform focus is structural, there is no nationwide “plan” for reorganisation, and councils (including new councils) take a proactive approach, working together to design new ways of working. Government plans on social care, finances and other major issues give local government some more freedom, and the certainty needed to put in place bolder plans for the future. Government demurs from putting in place more active oversight and inspection mechanisms, agreeing on a more locally led approach.
Scenario 3: more of the same
In this scenario, we see a sector which continues to grapple with uncertainty. The Devolution White Paper kicks off limited structural reform and with it the creation of a handful of new combined authorities. The social care green/white paper is further delayed, and when it arrives it offers no clear path for the sector to ensure social care’s sustainability. Councils alter the focus of their commercial activity to, as far as possible, limit exposure to post-pandemic risks. Councils continue to manage these stresses through more of what they are doing now – joint ventures, more effective partnership working, further cuts in some services, mergers of officer teams with their neighbours. Government attempts to exert more oversight of council financial performance by implementing some or all of the recommendations of the Redmond Review. It becomes increasingly difficult for councils to innovate or to set realistic medium term financial plans, leading to a number of councils issuing s114 notices – but as ever, some councils find ways to do things differently.
Scenario 4: centralism
In this scenario there is (over the course of a number of years) a significant restructure of local government which sees the number of councillors cut dramatically, in a process which focuses almost exclusively on cost saving. This process may be driven by Government or by councils themselves – driven by a widespread belief that many councils will prove to be financially unsustainable, with councils rendered even less resilient following the pandemic. The scale of the challenge diverts councils’ attention away from their local and community focus, and local partnerships and relationships begin to fragment, accelerated by continued economic uncertainty. The social care white paper removes duties from local authorities, creating either standalone social care trusts or incorporating services into the NHS. Potentially there is also an acceleration in the establishment of similar trusts for children’s services. Government chooses to put in place more rigorous central oversight of financial, governance and performance matters, implementing the recommendations in the Redmond Review but with a focus on new structure and inspection. More councils focus on delivering a “core offer” defined by a statutory minimum.
It should be stressed that any one of these scenarios might occur irrespective of the broader, macroeconomic circumstances. Even if the economy rebounds strongly, without certainty around funding for things like social care local government will still be in a parlous position. A weakened economic recovery, creating significant challenges for local resilience, could drive the sector to take a more profoundly community-focused approach, bypassing central Government by building coalitions of support at the most local level.
We should also say that some aspects of these scenarios might intersect and overlap. They are starting points for reflection rather than exhaustive predictions of the future. And finally, the timescales within which these scenarios might unfold is likely to wary – we have thought about what might happen between now and the next General Election in 2024, but some impacts may be more long term in nature.
These are some positive futures. But what might they mean for governance?
There are some common themes here.
- We don’t know what’s coming. We need to prepare for a significant range of possibilities;
- Not all these changes will happen to all councils. Some may be able to grasp more opportunities than others. We will see a divergence in councils’ business models – and possibly some councils at real risk of failure;
- All of these models involve increased structural complexity. The creation of independent trusts for some services, of new combined authorities, new parishes and area working arrangements – all involve a diffusion and fragmentation of traditional power;
- A tussle between upstream and downstream accountability. On some matters Government may assert the need for more oversight – local people are likely to demand more accountability. We will have to design governance systems which account for both.
In the coming weeks we expect to use these scenarios to explore further how governance might need to be redesigned to be relevant and productive in a post-pandemic world. In doing so, we want to hear from you. Are these futures that you recognise? What are your hopes and expectations? How and where does governance fit in? How can we at CfGS support councils to make this happen?