Future Local Part 1: Sovereignty

In the first of LGiU's series on the future of local government after the EU referendum, Andrew Walker argues that we need to rethink sovereignty so that we can pick up lessons from the muscular municipalism of the past. (Make sure you also read part 2, Creative Destruction

Sovereignty was central to the debate surrounding the referendum on the European Union. Many decided to vote leave based on a desire to "take back control" from a governing elite that is remote and seemingly disconnected from the lived experiences of communities across the country. This dissatisfaction was expressed through a campaign to retain or defend the sovereignty of Parliament, and the UK's position as a sovereign state.

But Westminster is, arguably, just as remote to many of those communities who showed their antipathy towards the European Union on 22nd June.

Meanwhile local government is rarely seen as more than a delivery arm of the state, also subject to that same centralised control from Westminster. A rather one-dimensional conception of sovereignty in the UK is at least partly responsible.

The picture in the UK, with its constituent nations and "tangle" of local and regional government institutions, is particularly complex. The ad hoc development of the state, the constitution and local government, have enabled us to get away with a slightly murky idea of where power lies, but recent events have brought this inadequacy into sharp relief.

We should learn to live with this complexity, and to accept a more fragmented, contested and layered idea of sovereignty that is fit for purpose. This is the way for communities to "take back control".

History shows that this is entirely possible.

Power at the Centre

Sovereignty is about where power lies, who exercises it and it's limitations. The UK state’s modus operandi of hoarding power at the centre is under pressure. The capacity of central administration to hold all the cards, make all the big decisions, and rely on efficient local delivery units to implement them has diminished. Globalisation has lead to increased subjection of the economy and society to forces, events and institutions outside the UK, while changes in policy making and institutional structure within the UK has lead to what some have termed "hollowing-out" of the state, fragmentation, or "reconstituting" of the state.

In response, and in an effort to achieve growth and service reform, the government has embarked on a radical programme of change in the spatial and territorial governance of England.

This devolution discussion tends to oscillate around the “Westminster Model” of government, however, in which power is concentrated in a central executive, accountable to a legally sovereign Parliament. In this model political life and statecraft happen in one place: Westminster. Decisions are made there and it is up to the provincial authorities to implement them without demur.

This model frames the way that many of us think about the state. Power is seen as being given away from the centre, and functions are delegated from Westminster to local government.

While national governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took on greater power and autonomy over the past two decades, arrangements in England have been left largely untouched. Central government has been notoriously reluctant to delegate even basic functions to regions and local authorities within England.

It used to be different.

Local Government's Rise

                                     The Old Town Hall in Manchester

There are legitimate reasons for the somewhat stunted view that councils have of their own sovereignty. The development of local government was ad hoc.

Following its inception in modern form during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century local government's powers and remit expanded rapidly. Its purpose was to tackle the urban poverty, terrible sanitation, overcrowding, unemployment, disease and crime that spread in that period. The new demands of an expanding industrial society were enormous and the inadequacy of the "tangle" of local government institutions began to tell under the pressure of fulfilling this mammoth task.

First, reform came in the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, which created a raft of single purpose ad hoc local authorities and replaced parishes for administration of poor relief with around 700 unions and groups of parishes under elected Boards of Guardians. It was not until the later 19th century that a recognisable "system" of local government began to take shape.

It took on control of housing, poor relief, and sanitation, paid for by local rates. This trend was coupled with the spread of electoral democracy to the institutions that made up local government.

Where a plethora of ad hoc bodies had provided many government services, the Municipal Corporation Act 1835 and a series of Local Government Acts in 1888, 1894 and 1899 set up elected County Councils, County Boroughs, Urban and Rural District Councils and Metropolitan Borough Councils.

"magnificent palaces and civic buildings – testimonies to their power and public spirit and munificence, memorials of the time when those communities maintained the liberties and protected the lives of the people against the oppression, and the tyranny, and the rapacity of their rulers."
Muscular Municipalism

As mayor, Joseph Chamberlain transformed the city of Birmingham 

By the end of the 19th Century Birmingham was widely seen as one of the best-governed cities in the world.

Active and innovative local government in the UK is personified by a few key figures, who governed in different times and places, but represent in the imagination an age where the role was more treasured, expansive and progressive than today. Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham from 1873 until 1876, was one such figure. In that relatively short time he transformed the city, implementing ambitious and radical reforms across the board, from the services provided to the improvements in physical space and infrastructure. By the end of the 19th Century Birmingham was widely seen as one of the best-governed cities in the world.

Chamberlain's importance goes beyond his direct reforming achievements, though. He transformed the status of municipal administration in the UK. Soon municipal leaders in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield were emulating his successes. Civic leadership became an accolade to be sought after, rather than a burden to be avoided. Local government and local civic identity were closely intertwined, so that bringing improvements like running water, street lighting and sewerage was a point of pride and was closely bound up with commercial entrepreneurialism.

One of Chamberlain's signature contributions was in the high premium he placed on the role of public buildings for what he called "dignity of municipal life". This he clearly saw as continuing in the tradition of medieval and renaissance communes that flourished across Europe and left behind "magnificent palaces and civic buildings – testimonies to their power and public spirit and munificence, memorials of the time when those communities maintained the liberties and protected the lives of the people against the oppression, and the tyranny, and the rapacity of their rulers."

The movement known as the 'municipal gospel', later as 'municipal socialism’, spread throughout local government. Despite dread of the word 'socialism’ urban governments across the country embarked on a new active and collectivist set of enterprises.

Councils took on steadily more power from the centre and the spread of electoral democracy continued in local government right up to its "golden age" in the 1920s and 1930s. Councils built houses, owned and ran utilities (which supplied more people than ever before) educated children and adults. From 1884 to 1914 the level of municipal trading in gas, water, electricity and tramways rose from £8.5m to £42m.

Indeed, Westminster often followed in local government's footsteps and legislated to make innovative council programmes generally administered across the country. Public housing programmes in Glasgow, free school meals from Birmingham, and infectious disease programmes such as those in Bolton are just a few examples.

Chamberlain Day in Birmingham, 1906
The "Decline" of Local Government

Two significant trends since 1945 have depleted the prospects for active and expansive local government. The first was the nationalisation and centralisation of many of those key services, such as health, for which local government had initially been established.

As early as 1941 it was understood that an enormous reconstruction effort would be required when the war finally ended, and that councils were to be the agents that would carry this out across the country. Local government was seen as a byzantine tangle, too complex for such an expansive and tightly managed programme of service delivery. Correcting the structural problems of local government became a priority issue for the wartime coalition government, and the Labour government that followed it.

The dominance of the centre over finance and expenditure increased. Councils were given more duties, but had their powers and freedoms stripped away.

Thus began the "decline" of local government power, authority and sovereignty.

The second trend began in the mid-1970s. The Labour government introduced numerous reforms that were intended to drive greater efficiency and managerial effectiveness in local government, supplanting entrenched professional interest. Councils were expected to deliver services, but they had an increasingly limited role in designing them and the regulatory regimes they worked in grew tighter and tighter. This trend accelerated under Thatcher and New Labour. This period has shaped decisively the form and function of the UK state ever since, particularly in local government.

What Next For Local Sovereignty?

Sovereignty is a central question for democratic legitimacy and the effective functioning of the state. In the modern world, however, it is fragmented and contested, by global, regional and local forces. The ability of a sovereign Parliament to govern and to innovate in the face of the many, and huge policy challenges we face has clearly diminished.

Champions of devolution in Westminster look to city-regional governments as the most effective units for increasing economic growth, improving service delivery, and streamlining governance are city-regions. It is to these units that the government seeks to move administrative powers and responsibilities.

Devolution could be an opportunity to start to engage with a more complex and contested form of sovereignty, in which different parts of the state, local and national, are also the site of political struggle and action. Where local civic institutions are given the freedom to lead, innovate, build and make things happen for their communities without deferring to a remote and disconnected Parliament. They could look to their historical forebears, who built schools, running water, street lighting and sewerage to their cities, raised public health standards, and engendered pride in the public realm.

But until sovereignty is up for grabs the political sphere will continue to be one of inaction, and councils will continue to be kowtowed into acting as deliverers of services, administrators and bureaucrats.