What is the ethical purpose of local government?

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman shares her thoughts on the ethical purpose of government

Ines Newman’s book Reclaiming local Democracy published in May.  At a launch in London on 10 June politicians, media commentators and the public debated some of the key issues covered in the book.  Ines Newman tells us more in her guest blog.

I wrote ‘Reclaiming local democracy’ because I want to generate a challenging debate on the ethical purpose of local government as well as more interest in local democracy. Brilliantly, that’s exactly what happened at the launch of the book earlier this month. Local vs central, financial independence and moving the agenda on from ‘what works’ to ‘what should an ethical local government do’ were all hotly debated.

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Panel of speakers at Reclaiming local democracy book launch June, London

Contributing editor to the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network, David Walker, raised the issue of a ‘postcode lottery’ if councils deliver different services in different areas. If, on the other hand, local authorities have an obligation to meet basic human need how can this provide scope for local decision-making? Such questions go to the heart of central/local relationships.

The basic human need for shelter places an obligation on governments to provide housing. But the form of the built environment and the variety of households in each area requires a discussion in each local authority area, involving residents, around what type of housing should be built and where.

My concern is how the local can influence the national

"I believe the central/local debate is misframed"

“I believe the central/local debate is misframed”

I believe that the central/local debate is ‘misframed’. We will always need strong central government to promote equality and facilitate redistribution. The question, therefore, is not just about which services should be devolved to local government.  More significantly, it is about how local government, together with local social movements, can help define basic human needs and rights at both national and local levels.  So my concern is how the local can influence the national. I see the Localism Act 2011, with its financial control of local government and minor devolution, as ‘hollow’ localism.

Financial independence

The lack of financial independence led to a debate on council tax. Council tax is highly regressive and has been made worse by its devolution to local government with reduced funding. This has resulted in many of the poorest households facing the highest cut in their living standards ever imposed by a government, as they now have to pay the ‘new poll tax’.

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government engrossed in Reclaiming Local Democracy

I believe that if politicians have the ability to right an injustice, they should do just that. Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, raised the political difficulties that will be caused by the protests from those who will lose out. Another contributor suggested that it was therefore essential for council tax reform to be in a party manifesto so that the democratic mandate could be used to support implementation. I would like to see local councillors campaigning now on council tax reform, to ensure the voice of poorer residents is heard against the more powerful, affluent residents whose interests are threatened. This is precisely where the local should be influencing the national, so we can develop a fair tax base for local government.

Ethical approach

In the book I argue that we need to move the agenda from ‘What works?’ to ‘What should an ethical local government do?’ Hilary Benn argued that these two questions are not necessarily in conflict and I agree with him. I believe the problem with the ‘What works?’ question is that it is usually asked in relation to a narrow output target which may fail to address the causes of the problem. The ‘best’ solution can then be determined by an expert. If such a methodology is to be combined with an ethical approach, the political questions should take priority. By providing a clear set of questions to ask in relation to the ethical implications of policy decisions, the book aims to support the political process and councillors who want to make a difference.

It’s great that the book has started to generate a debate. The green shoots of a new revival in local democracy are evident and I welcome feedback on the themes both of the debate and the book in general.

Reclaiming Local DemocracyReclaiming local democracy is available at a special discount rate on the Policy Press website.  Get involved in the debate by encouraging your local library to order a copy! 

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