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.

Birmingham City Hall
Birmingham: Not home to directly elected mayors

A week after the elections one set of results particularly disappoints me.

Not the Conservative and Lib Dem losses – while I’m sure we lost many fine councillors this election was a typical mid-term where the government is traditionally punished. Coming from a high point four years ago the losses were not at all surprising.

What really disappointed me were the results of the mayoral referenda.

As a localist, of course, I’ve no problem with the people all those cities exercising their right to not to have mayoral government. But I can’t help thinking they have missed an opportunity. Mayoral government isn’t right everywhere, but surely some of those cities would be better with a mayor than a traditional council.

The result that disappointed me most was Birmingham. I’ve a soft spot for the city, I don’t know why – I’ve no connection and probably wouldn’t particularly want to live there. But I have enjoyed every time I have visited or worked there. And I’ve always pondered the oddity that leaves it struggling to be seen as the second city ahead of Manchester, when on all objective measures Manchester shouldn’t even be in the running.

And one should not forget Birmingham’s magnificent local government heritage. It is the place that made local government. Led by Joseph Chamberlain Birmingham initiated massive improvements in the lives of its residents, and remains a great example of innovation at local level that would be impossible now after decades of centralisation and prescriptive legislation.

Chamberlain was not directly elected, but used the position of mayor to provide exactly the sort of personality-driven leadership a modern directly elected mayor should provide. In doing so Birmingham became a laboratory of democracy which changed both the city and Britain for the better.

His contribution was so significant that I write about him under the assumption that you have at least a vague idea of who he was. But I’d also bet you couldn’t name either new or old leaders of Birmingham.

'Diamond' Joe Quimby, dressed as a sandwich
An avatar for British local democracy?

As an aside, a few years ago I ran, with someone else, a website called Cllr Tweeps. It was a fairly simple searchable directory of councillors by name, party or council on Twitter in the days before Twitter became mainstream. In its day was the biggest, and I like to think best, directory of its type. (We eventually ended it because of the cost in both time and money, and because a publicly funded equivalent was created, although even now I think ours was more useful to councillors and residents).

The accompanying Twitter account needed an avatar, a picture to represent local government. After much searching we decided the best image was ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby.

Animated, American and directly elected though he was, not a single person complained, or even commented, that it wasn’t the best representation of British local government. He was just accepted.

And this country’s existing mayors all seem to have been accepted too. I didn’t see any serious debate in the recent London mayoral compaign about the existence of the position. Doncaster actively voted to keep their mayor, despite being seen as ‘controversial’.

Perhaps it is simply that those cities who voted no don’t want to be laboratories of democracy. Maybe they will re-consider after Liverpool, Salford and Bristol have had mayors in post for a few years. Though by then they will be playing catch-up.

Returning to Birmingham, I can’t help feeling that some of the reasons suggested for Bristol’s yes vote on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog should have applied:

Even those in favour of a mayor recognised a yes vote would be a leap of faith. But it was a leap worth taking. Why? The overarching narrative of the ‘Yes’ campaign was an appeal to civic pride and to a sense of underachievement. Bristol may be one of the richest cities outside of London but there is a feeling that it is less than the sum of its parts.

The no votes were an expression of localist will. That should be respected and celebrated. But I wonder if Chamberlain, having seen so much changed by his time in local government, would be comforted or shocked to see that Birmingham’s government still works in much the same way as it did when he ran it.

This post first appeared on the Local Government Association blog.

What do you say to someone who wants to be a councillor?

After agreeing to meet someone through the LGA’s ‘Be a councillor’ campaign, I needed an answer.

There are, of course, the platitudes: you can make a difference, improve your area, maybe get that parking problem sorted. Or the time commitments: the town hall, the ward, being horsewhipped by your local party to deliver another newsletter. And the perks: though no examples spring to mind.

But I’m probably going through some sort of electoral mid-life crisis and found myself asking a more fundamental question: what is the point of a council?

I found it hard to answer.

We could use the same platitudes writ large, but that understates the historical importance of local government. For centuries any social progress worth shouting about was the result of local boards and corporations making the lives of citizens healthier and happier. National government defended our borders (and occasionally attacked other people’s) but for everything else there was the town hall.

The result may not have been consistent, but what is now derided as a postcode lottery set the rapid pace of social improvement in the 19th century. Councils and their forerunners identified service needs and innovated, their neighbours copied and improved, and the country benefited. Even those services we blithely assume could only be national had local roots. Before the NHS was a beloved institution if you needed a hospital bed the odds were your local council would provide.

Yet in the space of a single lifetime (extended, I should point out, thanks to local authority work in public health) these dynamic councils were brought low. Their sovereignty raided, powers taken and freedoms shackled.

Even the current suggestion of a ‘Magna Carta for local government’ seems more about central government returning appropriated powers and rights than recognising the potential of a dynamic and free tier of local government. It is still about things being done to us, not with or by us.

So what would I say to a potential councillor now? Well, the platitudes remain, after all, casework is a modern councillor’s bread and butter and we know change isn’t just around the corner.

But the conversation wouldn’t be complete without reference to local government’s proud history, and the suggestion that maybe, with determination, vision and the correct permission from the Department for Communities and Local Government, they could be part of a new era of innovative and independent local government.

Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster council’s published their ‘lessons learned’ from the first year of their tri-borough project last month. Despite finding the report fascinating reading, I did little else with it. I’ll confess that part of that was down to jealousy! It’s an incredibly exciting project, and while it has risks, there are undoubted benefits.

Reading through the report, it’s hard to not form the conclusion that an administrative merger has taken place. While politically the three councils remain separate (and legislation would be required to change that) it’s clear that at every other level they are becoming increasingly intertwined.

Three things really stuck out of the report for me.

First, was the political honesty that the tri-borough plans were not universally supported – even within the controlling groups: “there are sceptics in our majority groups about Tri-borough,” the report reads. “Their arguments have been heard and listened to. They have helped make the proposals better and many hours of public and informal discussion on these plans have taken place.” A rare public reference to the internal arguments that happen in pretty much any large organisation, but especially political organisations. Rarely do any proposals spring into life fully formed and with unanimous support. However, many ideas are greatly improved by the internal debate. That debate does, and should, remain private – otherwise it could not take place – but I think we should acknowledge it more often.

Second, and undoubtedly related, is the focus on sovereignty; but I can’t help wondering what sovereignty actually means here. There may be a 19 point ‘Sovereignty Guarantee’, but it’s very hard to imagine how any of the councils could easily extricate themselves from the tri-borough arrangements when so many of their staff will be employed jointly by two or all three of the councils. I’m sure there are examples of organisations seceding from similar partnerships, but I’m finding it hard to think of any. Indeed, such a project becomes self-fulfilling, as more and more staff are appointed jointly and, therefore, have a bigger stake in making the joint arrangements work.

Third, is the success they have had. Their first annual report makes much of the impact of ‘Summer in the City’, a joint campaign, in improving public perception of the councils. But the same can be said of any publicity campaign, much more interesting is the list of savings contained in the appendix. While I’m sure there were all sorts of political arguments when those savings were made, it’s hard to sniff at a group of councils who are running things for £33 million less by removing duplication in their services. I suspect that most residents have noticed little, if any, impact on the services they receive.

My suspicion is that few people really care that much about what happens behind the frontline. Wandsworth has a highly rated library service, for example, but I don’t think have any idea that behind it is the London Library Consortium, through whom we get and manage stock, or that we are looking at jointly running services with Croydon. What most people using a library care about are the facilities it offers and whether they can get the books they want.

There are real gains to be had in removing much of the duplication in services and realising economies of scale to free up resources for the really important stuff that happens locally and makes an area special. Civic pride comes from what happens in their areas, and doesn’t care much about where a council’s human resources or legal services are based.

But the scale of the tri-borough project is something beyond the shared services taking place everywhere else. When I have done work with various partnerships around the country I would always ask focus groups: “Do you work for the council, police (or the health service, voluntary organisation, etc.) or the partnership?” The response was always telling and revealed a lot about the culture.

It would be interesting to see how officers from those three councils respond to a similar question in a few years time.

(What finally prompted me to write something about this was that I’m taking part in an online discussion on the future of local government on the Guardian Local Government Network this afternoon between 12 noon and 2pm. Given that nothing I say can be proved or disproved I’m looking forward to speculating about flying Mayoral cars and paperless councils where we all have iPads.)

Continuing the Big Society theme from yesterday my interest was piqued by an article by Philip Johnston in yesterday’s Telegraph (David Cameron must not be blinded by his vision) in which he argues that local councils should be the vehicle, and not the victim, of the Big Society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the article generated a number of anti-local government comments. But his fundamental point is, I think, a good one.

Local government has long been a victim of centralisation; seeing their powers restricted or stripped away by Whitehall. This was even the case with the ‘localising’ Labour government who excelled in setting targets to ensure that local councils largely did central government’s bidding.

It is too early to know whether this government will eventually succumb to a centralising agenda. But the irony is even if they don’t local government may still suffer a similar fate by seeing their powers given away to communities.

Are we faced with the possibility of schools being run by parents, housing estates by residents, care homes by relatives and councils left doing not very much?

Of course, there are some services that people may never want to run but my concern is that the services that ‘make’ an area, the ones that go towards making Wandsworth different to Lambeth or Merton, are the ones ripest for community involvement and management.

This is not a bad thing of itself, I don’t see any reasons why these services shouldn’t or couldn’t be run this way. But does it remove a local council’s ability to have any sort of vision it can put into action?

To give a hypothetical example, in Battersea the council arguably sees Battersea Park as something of a jewel in the crown, and the facilities we have in there help shape the sort of people attracted to the area. Usage would be very different if we removed all the children’s facilities and replaced them with sedate gardens. We can define the cultural tone of the borough through the events we do, or do not, allow (imagine the extreme difference between an Orange march or a Bastille Day event in the middle week-end of July). We can even help shape the fitness of the borough with the facilities we provide, from the Millennium Arena to the bike hire.

But we couldn’t do any of that if management of the park were devolved to the Friends of Battersea Park. It’s not a situation I foresee happening (as far as I know neither the council nor the Friends have even considered such a possibility) but you can use any number of council facilities as the example. What if parents were running the local youth club, a sports club the leisure centre or an Agatha Christie fan-club the library?!

I’ll be honest, this is very much thinking (or blogging) out loud. But it is an interesting question, if we followed the Big Society to its ultimate conclusion in allowing communities to run their own affairs and direct their own services as far as possible what sort of society are we creating? Arguably it would fairly self-perpetuating society, since people would run services that matched their particular interests and values which would, in turn, attract like-minded people not stimulate diversity.

Instinctively it feels to me that there’s a political divide and it would be much easier of you are on the left to say this is why the state should retain a role rather than delegating to the Big Society. But even as someone on the right who believes in individual responsibility and a small state I can see issues that need to be carefully considered. As ever there is a balance, and the trick is finding that balance.

I’m not sure I know the answers but do you? What do you think the role of local councils are if we have a Big Society?

It’s time to come out. Despite my regular use of Twitter, and my frequent advocacy of it, I’m a sceptic. I think it is over-hyped and while fun and useful for some, for most it’s an irrelevance.

Now to a degree that title and first paragraph was a bit of fly-catching. This blog post is advertised and Twitter and I’m sure I’ll have attracted a few people who came to read just so they can disagree, shake their heads and mutter to themselves that I just don’t ‘get it’ – the most damning statement you can make about a Twitter critic.

I am actually a fan of Twitter, I think it is incredibly useful, I have benefited enormously from it and have been able to help a number of residents through it. But I think people sometimes lack a little perspective.

But what prompted me to write this post was the response on Twitter to Plymouth Council’s decision to block access to Twitter through their network. This, of course, was a travesty and compared to the actions of the Iranian Government. Presumably a news blackout and riots on the streets of Plymouth are next.

A search on Twitter reveals widespread condemnation. Many quote the Labour candidate’s response or the similar story that appeared on the MJ’s website. Fewer point to articles like those on The People’s Republic of South Devon or The Plymouth Herald where the comments suggest that, actually, local people are not lining up to condemn the council and many support the move.

Now there are arguments on both sides. You might think that transparency is a good thing in government at any level, and I totally agree. But is Twitter the way? There, I’m not so sure – the Twittering classes are still a fairly insignificant minority numerically, many of those with Twitter accounts barely use them and there’s still a significant proportion of people who do not even have internet access.

Plymouth City Council aren’t trying to ban communication. They are banning access to a social networking site from council computers. I’ve twice seen internal emails advising of a blanket ban on access to specific sites, once for eBay and then for facebook – neither occasion were Wandsworth council, but instead my employers at the time. Indeed, I once had to present a business case to get any internet and email access.

And it’s entirely within any employers right to provide or limit internet access as they see fit. I happen to think it should be a management issue, rather than an IT issue, but if they feel their staff have no valid work reason to use Twitter in work time, then they have the right to make that decision and use IT to enforce it.

Comparisons with Tehran are wide of the mark. I don’t think Labour are accusing the council of rigging an election, just complaining about the use of council resources on another social networking site. People are free to Twitter, facebook, eBay, YouTube or even FriendsReunite in their own time, but I’m guessing the council – and most residents – feel this isn’t really what, say, a housing benefits officer or social worker should be doing at their desk.

So am I supporting Plymouth? Yes, I think I am. Each council has the right to make their own decisions. I might not have made that decision, but fully support them in their right to make it. Should they have different access policies for councillors and employees? Perhaps. But is it really a blow for communication, or transparency? No, absolutely not. Twitter is just a medium, one among many. If Plymouth seek to stop communication, or make their workings opaque, that is a problem, but when we attach more value to a medium then we do the messages it carries it is already too late anyway.