The FT are running a series on how austerity is affecting local councils. I rather enjoyed this article about Oldham, detailing a scheme in which the council helped residents transform a bit of open space, showing that even when times are hard it needn’t all be bad.

Oldham 'hidden' garden“You can’t leave everything to the council as far as keeping places tidy. You’ve got to take responsibility for your own little patch, really,” adds another member of the secret garden team, Dave Owens.

Such sentiments are music to the ears of Jim McMahon, Oldham’s Labour council leader.

The council previously enjoyed the sense that it was “big and important, because we ran the place and it was all ours”, Mr McMahon says. “The measure of success used to be ‘how big’s your budget and how many staff do you employ?’ ”

I think Jim McMahon is one of the country’s better council leaders, in part because he appears to recognise the importance of leading and area and a community rather than just a council.

I can’t help but like Ed Miliband’s small piece in today’s Guardian on his promise to lead a localist Government. A lot of the article is, unsurprisingly, a mix of political and platitude. It’s difficult to see, without details, how some of the pledges are different from the status quo. However, what caught my eye was his pledge to set up local Public Accounts Committees:

Labour will introduce a statutory requirement for authorities to set up a public accounts committee (PAC) with powers to scrutinise value for money for all local services. The role played by Labour’s formidable chairman of the Commons PAC shows what can be done – and every town or city should have its own Margaret Hodge.

These committees, coupled with new requirements to publish performance data, would be led by councillors so they can challenge, hold to account and improve all public services in their area.

It’s an idea about which I wrote a brief post nearly a month ago having seen the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s somewhat older suggestions.

It is, perhaps, evidence that I’m optimistic (despite my usual demeanour), and over-estimate the volume of liquid in containers, to see this as positive. I recall I clung to the mistaken belief that Eric Pickles was a localist long after it was quite clear he was anything but. There is a tendency for oppositions—at whatever level—to be localist until they get power, at which point they realise that localism works best at exactly their level and no lower.

This is merely a trailer for a policy a potential Labour government would introduce, and I just can’t see Ed Miliband winning an election: whatever the polls say and whatever efficiency of the Labour vote under the first past the post system. However, it does look like a manifesto commitment from a major political party, which starts the debate.

Most public money in the area is spent with remarkably little public oversight and accountability. Even that spent by the council often isn’t directly scrutinised, but instead via the performance of a contract, and innovations like staff mutuals mean some of that gets another step further away from councillors. The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s (and now Ed Miliband’s) idea won’t shine a spotlight on every single penny spent, but councillor-led public accounts committees will bring into focus how public money is collectively spent and how effectively it is being used in achieving common aims.

It won’t be discussed in many living rooms and pubs tonight, but it’s a debate about the machinery of local government rather than merely whether councils collect bins weekly or fortnightly and regardless of who starts it, I’m glad someone has.

Van Gogh Walk, from the LGIU's 'People Shaped Places' report

On this side of the Wandsworth-Lambeth border there is a tendency to sneer at Lambeth. Some of this, I think, dates from the 80s and 90s when Lambeth represented ‘loony left’ councils while Wandsworth was a Tory flagship and sustained by a neighbourly rivalry. However, that overlooks huge improvement in both boroughs since the 80s: even the ever-present comparison of council tax belies the fact that, across London, Lambeth is well towards the bottom end of charges; Westminster and Wandsworth as unusually low outliers.

Wandsworth was a radical Conservative council in the 80s and the early 90s but has increasingly become something of an older statesmen of local authorities. Stable political control and strong financial management mean that it offers few surprises, even when I first joined the council in 1998 it was privately noted that while we had a reputation for innovation, we were rarely innovative. We were never first with any new policy, although we often managed to be the first to make a new policy work after others did the dangerous (and potentially expensive) experimentation.

Lambeth, of course, has not shared that history. It had its radicalism in the 80s and early 90s, but does not entirely share Wandsworth’s political stability. From 2002 until 2006 Labour lost control to a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. That lack of stability has an impact on the council’s membership, meaning a greater turnover of councillors and, therefore, an arguably richer pool of policy formation.

To get my heresy out of the way: I’ve got a bit of borough envy going on. And I have for a while.

The current source of my envy has been Lambeth’s ‘co-operative council’ work. This envy is driven by several factors, sheer novelty is a big factor: I’m interested in seeing how things could work differently (I recognise the council tax payer and voter does not share my enthusiasm for straying from the tried and tested). More fundamentally, I cannot help but think—pessimistically—that the end is near for traditional local government and, if we want to keep it in any meaningful way, we need to start looking at different ways of delivering services.

Lambeth’s policy was the subject of an LGIU report People Shaped Places. This report, in turn, was the subject of a blog post on Public Strategist, the author of which, coincidentally, lives by one of the projects featured in the LGIU report, Van Gogh Walk, has been a “modest beneficiary” of Lambeth’s Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme1.

Together they make fascinating reading.

The Van Gogh Walk project, put simply, took a backstreet and turned it into a community space. The process attempted to be resident-driven (although the two sources vary in their interpretation of what this actually meant in practice) meaning that residents made the proposals, not simply responded to council consultations.

From the LGIU’s report:

Speaking to George Wright, the project lead at Lambeth Council, he explained: “key to this project was that it was community-led and there was lots of momentum already”. The community already had a good idea as to their aspiration … this marks an important contrast and may explain why the project idea was bolder …
George also emphasised the importance of “Lambeth’s radical and open-minded leadership” in contrast to a risk-averse tendency found in some councils, which can serve as a barrier to new ideas or different ways of doing things … George pointed out the value of what can be achieved through taking these risks, highlighting the sense of community pride that Van Gogh Walk has created – evidenced by the fact there has been no vandalism. “People treat it better because they feel better”.

The Public Strategist blog seems a little more cynical (my interpretation) when describing how the process went in his area2:

The dialogue went something like this:

Council: Tell us what you would like.

Residents: We want to stop speeding and rat running. And have better communal bins. And some other stuff. And a pony.

Council: That’s too difficult. How about we just send the traffic on a more circuitous route round more narrow residential streets in the hope that people will give up and go away. And there’s nothing we can do about the bins. Or the pony.

Clearly there would always be a distance between resident ambition and administrative delivery. However, the project overall does give the impression of something that is better because of meaningful resident involvement.

Of course, you could argue that resident involvement is effectively possible at any stage in any council. People can comment on consultations, raise objections to planning and licensing applications, organise petitions or campaign for changes. They sometimes even email their councillors and, I guess, get a variety of responses.

In the longer term the way they do, or don’t, use services or areas will shape their future. Northcote Road has undoubtedly been shaped by local residents and their demographic (which then raises the question of what shaped that demographic, and there are all sorts of chickens and eggs there).

However, you do not often see something quite as ambitious as Lambeth. Even in programmes with a strong element of consultation, there’s usually an imbalance in favour the council, they have plans which can be shaped, rather than plans that are created in conjunction.

I can’t help thinking about Lavender Hill. I’m certain people don’t want the steady decline, I’m confident they don’t want a widespread conversion of commercial space into residential space. The difficulty is in divining what residents do want. What are the sort of businesses and shops they would want to see, and most importantly use? I don’t think we’ve ever asked in any meaningful way. I have conversations with people (some sparked by posts on this blog), but there’s never been a consistent dialogue.

And what does that mean? Surely, without real dialogue between a municipality and its residents the council becomes little more than a service delivery vehicle, a contractor of waste collection, funder of schools, commissioner of public health. Functions that can be undertaken just as easily at a regional or even national level as they are by a local council.

You might argue that a four-yearly mandate means that isn’t the case, but I’m not sure an election which most people ignore is enough. If local government is to have meaning in the future then it needs to have meaning for residents, and Lambeth might be an example from which we should learn.

  1. I incorrectly assumed Stefan Czerniawski, the author of the Public Strategist blog, lived near Van Gogh Walk. But you know what they say about assuming. I’ve edited my post to make the changes clear, though I don’t think it affects my main point, which is about having a dialogue (and although not stated explicitly, that it needs to be honest and lead to mutual understanding and shared goals). 
  2. Another edit, the italicised words were added to avoid it appearing like the comments related to Van Gogh Walk. 

A piece in The Guardian’s Public Leader’s Network yesterday caught my imagination today. Although primarily about economic growth it referenced a previous publication (PDF) by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) suggesting the creation of local Public Accounts Committees:

[CfPS chairman Nick Raynsford] raises the major challenge that without rethinking the basic forms and institutions of our democracy, leaders will “be haunted by the problems of public contempt”.

CfPS’s proposal for a local place-based Public Accounts Committee, which we floated last year and have been exploring further with stakeholders to develop ideas about how it might work in practice, is gaining traction in a range of places. We think that the principle of a single, powerful body to provide challenge to the leaders and managers of all local public services for their collective efforts to improve a local place is an important part of the case for more devolution.

After years of local government training my instinct is to think about why it is a bad idea and wouldn’t work. It would require genuine partnership between all parts of the public sector in an area but the old joke in local government partnership was that partnership is “something we do to other people,” a sadly prevalent attitude that needs to change. Yet the more I think about it, the more I can see the benefits.

The model, of course, is the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee which has had notable successes over the years. But perhaps more importantly has earned its status and, through its scrutiny of spending, has arguably created a culture in which more care is taken with public money.

A local public accounts committee would rarely capture the public imagination or media headlines, but by focusing on the how all public money is spent in an area it will also focus the minds of those spending it, and how they can collectively make that spending more effective. Ultimately, it will force those involved in an area to collectively think about what they are doing and—ideally—create a shared vision towards which they can work: something that happens incredibly rarely today.

Pessimistically I can see this as an idea that may never be implemented or, if it is, one killed off before it has a chance to prove its value. But if it were given a chance I’d bet we’d look at it in years to come and wonder why on earth we took so long to establish local PACs.