“Councillors and Governing in a Complex Environment” – Prof Colin Copus, Director of Local Governance Unit, De Montfort University of Leicester.
In Britain, central government decides the shape, population, responsibilities, powers and functions of councils in England and the number of elected members a council will have. It is central government which can, and does, abolish councils, or entire layers of local government which lacks even the most basic constitutional protection, including the right to continued existence.
While central government will consult with councils and communities about the nature of local government, it is not bound by such consultation, nor are citizens given the final say over what happens to their councils via a referendum. The British unitary system is based on top-down Parliamentary sovereignty, not a bottom-up citizen democracy. English local government then must look to the British Parliament and Government, unlike local government in Scotland and Wales which looks firstly and directly to their respective devolved regional chambers.
The gradual decline in power and freedom of British local government has been well charted (Jones and Stewart, 1985, Young and Rao, 1997, 1999). But, when that decline began, local government was, compared to much local government overseas, already at a low point (see, Reynaert, et al, 2005, Denters and Rose, 2005). Two factors must be disentangled here, first local government’s role as a public service provider; and, second, its position as a politically representative institution.
Prior to the advent of the Conservative government lead by Mrs Thatcher, in 1979, the position of local government as a service provider had been secure. Finances may have been at the control of central government, to one degree of another, but, British local government was synonymous with the provision of public services; it was the key vehicle through which the modern public sector operated and by which the public provision of services was largely maintained.
A casual glance at the development of British local government indicates that, at key points, it was seen first and foremost by central government, as a mechanism for public provision. A role in which councils have been able to find some space for the expression of local party political differences, if not the expression of local policy differences and preferences from that of the centre (see, Hennock, 1973, Fraser, 1979, Owen, 1982).
In a highly centralised state local government’s ability to shape the local economy or the actions of other agencies and bodies that spend public money, make public decisions and develop public policy, is limited to influence rather than power. The presentation will explore how local government exerts influence over the local economy, the actions it can take, the alliances it must forge and the limitations on its ability to direct the development of the local economy. That exploration will take place in the light of the formation of combined authorities, many of which have an economic development responsibility.