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About this book

During its 13 years of office, Labour's modernization agenda transformed the world of UK local government. Amidst a starkly altered political and economic climate the coalition government formed in 2010 pledged to implement equally radical changes to the system. Taking account of the coalition's programme for government and its first round of spending cuts, the completely revised and updated fifth edition of this popular and established text is timed to take full advantage of this historic juncture.

David Wilson and Chris Game provide readers with systematic coverage of the UK's local government. The book examines its defining features, its history, changing structure, operations, functions, financing, and its relations with central government.

The fifth edition gives additional emphasis to local government in the devolved regions of the UK, and provides more extensive analysis of centre-local government relations. The authors deliver a thorough critique of Labour's third term in office. Looking ahead, the book anticipates the future of local government under the coalition government. Two themes look likely to dominate policy making: decentralization and cuts to public spending. With its clear, accessible, non-technical style and popular illustrations, Local Government in the United Kingdom will be essential reading for students, practitioners, and anyone with an interest in local politics.

Table of Contents

Local Government: The Basics

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Introduction: Our Aims and Approach

Abstract
Seeking a perceptive insight into the diversity of British culture, you would not necessarily turn first to a professional cricketer. But then Ed Smith was not your typical professional sportsman. He also wrote, during his playing career, books, articles, and even some literary criticism, and subsequently became a leader writer on The Times. He was a good enough batsman to represent England — three times in 2003, following a once-in-a-lifetime month in which he hit an astonishing six centuries in eight innings. It was an exceptional story that he turned into a fascinating book, in which he notes that:
One of the best things about being a professional cricketer is the opportunity to experience the rest of the country. You learn, if you look, that things change quickly from county to county. You notice smiles come more easily in some grounds and cities than in others. You learn that some counties harbour more hatred of government, or London, or flashiness. You hear different attitudes to money, to drink, to sport. (Smith, 2005, p. 78 — our emphasis)
What a contrast to Raymond Seitz, a former US Ambassador to Britain, whose observations opened this book’s previous two editions.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 2. Themes and Issues in Local Government

Abstract
This chapter introduces some of the main current themes and issues in UK local government and the key defining characteristics of the local government system. The latter, not surprisingly, are essentially unchanged from the book’s previous edition. Some of the themes and issues, however, have changed significantly, and the same will happen during the lifetime of this edition. We start, therefore, by emphasising the benefit of following local government stories and developments in the national and local media. If, for example, you had been on media watch during the autumn of 2009, the headlines that might have caught your eye would almost certainly have included some of those shown in Exhibit 2.1.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 3. Why Elected Local Government?

Abstract
The local government historian, Jim Chandler, recalled recently the observation of an earlier distinguished academic, W. J. M. Mackenzie — deliverer, as it happens, of the first university lecture one of us ever attended: ‘“There is no theory of local government,” Mackenzie contended (1961, p. 5), “no normative general theory from which we can deduce what local government ought to be”’ (Chandler, 2008, p. 355).
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 4. The Way It Was

Abstract
Why include a historical chapter in a book on contemporary local government? Why not just focus on the present system, its structure and operation? Two reasons. First, and most fundamentally, because in all sorts of ways that present system is shaped by its history, as Professors Jones and Stewart explain:
History can be seen in the buildings of local authorities; in particular, in the Victorian and Edwardian town halls built to express the pride of civic government … The law about local government has been built over time … Legal precedents deriving from past cases are important in present-day local government… The history of particular local authorities is important in moulding their distinctive cultures. (2009, p. 22 — emphases ours)
The present cannot be properly understood without some appreciation of how it developed and differs from the past — especially in Britain, where local government has evolved gradually over the centuries, without any codified constitution defining its rights, responsibilities and relationship to central government. Second, if ever we were inclined to drop the history chapter, it would seem particularly wrong to pick a time when the Children’s Secretary in the Brown Government, Ed Balls, was trying to abolish primary school ‘history’ and subsume it into an ‘area of learning’ — the totalitarian-sounding ‘historical, geographical and social understanding’. It might be construed as supportive.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 5. The Way It Is: External Structures

Abstract
The next three chapters outline the present-day arrangements of UK sub-central government — that is, both local and regional. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), who produce the most authoritative maps of these things, used to suggest that the UK saw more administrative boundary changes each year than the rest of the European Union (EU) put together. The EU is now larger, so it may not be literally true, but the underlying point is — to the extent that, to cover recent developments satisfactorily, two chapters in this book’s previous edition have become three. Chapter 7 deals with the internal structures of local authorities: the varying ways they manage themselves and conduct their business. Before that, we look at external structures: in Chapter 6 at the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, and first at local authorities, updating the evolution of our local government system, which was left hanging at the end of Chapter 4.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 6. Devolution for the Nations and Regions

Abstract
For an administration led by a prime minister with no evident interest in the subject, the 1997 Labour Government’s record of constitutional reform was remarkable. Within four years it reformed the House of Lords, introduced the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts, codified the financing of political parties and election campaigns, introduced an avalanche of new electoral systems, and, as we have seen, continued the structural reform of local government. But, arguably more far-reaching than any of these — and with obvious consequences for a book on UK local government — was its devolution programme. The new devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have changed not just the content of the British constitution but also its very nature. Britain has become an asymmetrical union: effectively a quasi-federal state.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 7. The Way It Is: Internal Structures

Abstract
The radical external structural reforms to the British local governmental system outlined in Chapters 4 and 5 have been at least matched by changes taking place within it — in particular, the advent of ‘executive local government’. Indeed, ‘reform’ is too moderate a term for the transformation in their day-to-day working practices that many councils have experienced in recent years. In overthrowing almost two centuries of committee-based decision-making, the new mayoral and cabinet executives discussed in this chapter have amounted to a small revolution. Some elements of this revolution are already being reversed or modified under the Coalition Government, while the relentless search for efficiency savings is prompting additional momentous developments in councils’ structures and organisation. It makes for a rapidly changing scene, which this chapter will attempt to capture in the equivalent of a long-exposure snapshot.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 8. Functions and Services

Abstract
Chapter 7 ended on a note of scepticism: the suggestion that achieving major efficiency savings through service-sharing might prove harder in practice than it appears. The sceptics here are chiefly people in local government who — to steal an analogy from Lewisham Council’s chief executive, Barry Quirk — are most aware of the differences between knickers and haircuts. Statistically, the chances are that your knickers were made in China, but would you go to China for a haircut? Probably no — because, while products are nowadays global commodities, services are local, or should be.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 9. Governance and Partnership

Abstract
Chapter 8 focused specifically on elected local authorities as direct service providers. Yet, even with that focus, numerous other organisations crept in: trust and foundation schools, police and health authorities, primary care trusts, registered social landlords, regional development agencies — plus, almost everywhere it seems, partnerships. It was a telling illustration of how the ‘established ways of doing local government are giving way to new … governance alternatives’ (Stoker, 2004a, p. 9). Local government today is just one part of the complex organisational mosaic now widely termed ‘local governance’ — though unique in being directly elected and thereby electorally accountable. Davis (1996 — quoted on p. 150) used the metaphor of elected local authorities getting used to ‘sharing the turf’. Tony Blair’s image was more aggressive (Blair, 1998, p. 10): ‘There are all sorts of players on the local pitch jostling for position where previously the local council was the main game in town.’ Unlike the conclusion of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s immortal 1966 World Cup Final commentary, however, this pitch invasion does not signal that ‘it’s all over’ for elected local government — simply that there have been some extensive changes in the rules of engagement. This chapter will map and evaluate these changed rules, the world of partnerships and the ubiquitous quango.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 10. Central-Local Government Relations: The Formal Framework

Abstract
A good part of this book has already been about aspects of central-local government relations. Chapter 2 noted the statutory and financial constraints that limit local government’s operational discretion. Chapter 4 outlined the successive ‘top-down’ restructurings that have produced its present-day shape and scale. Chapters 8 and 9 described local government’s loss of power to quangos and central government’s insistence on partnership working, and several of the remaining chapters will also refer to the topic. The fact is that an account of local government in a unitary state such as the UK must necessarily also be an account of its central-local relations. The latter provide the backdrop, the stage, the direction and much of the script for the former, and it is appropriate that, in these pivotal central chapters of the book, we bring the various strands of the subject together.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 11. Central-Local Government Relations: The Practice

Abstract
Chapter 10 was about what might be called the instruments of control in the relationship — in this case between central and local government: the various means of imposing their will that are available principally to ministers and central departments as a consequence of their superior constitutional and legal status. We now move beyond these formal legalities and look at the relationship in practice.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 12. Local Finance

Abstract
One of many myths about local government finance concerns Lady Godiva, whose husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, agreed to abolish the Heregeld tax on the local peasantry if she rode naked on a white horse through the streets of eleventh-century Coventry. Sadly, killjoy historians reckon that, real persons though they both were, the equestrian bit — and presumably the tax cut — was invented by medieval tourist development officers to attract pilgrims to the city. A more contemporary myth is that most of the money that councils spend is raised locally, through the council tax (Hansard Society, 2010, p. 126). Regularly, the guess — and it almost always is a guess — is between 50% and 70%, with the rest coming from central government. The key purposes of this chapter are to emphasise how the truth is the precise reverse, to indicate the consequences of what, from local government’s perspective, is a debilitatingly adverse balance of funding, and to reduce the need for some of that guesswork.
David Wilson, Chris Game

The Politics and People of Local Government

Frontmatter

Chapter 13. Local Elections: Christmas Tree Lights?

Abstract
Of the several characteristics identified in Chapter 2 as distinguishing local authorities from other institutions of public administration, the most fundamental is the fact of their election, aspects of which provide the content of the next two chapters. Chapter 14 focuses on the products of the electoral process: the councillors, while this chapter looks in detail at that process: how elections are conducted, who votes, and how those votes are cast. They have been tagged ‘the Christmas tree lights of British politics — one has to have them every year and they undoubtedly add colour to the scene, but are rarely that illuminating’ (The Times, 3 May 2003, editorial). This chapter argues that their candlepower is underrated — and that the metaphor says more about the dismissive way in which the national media typically view and report — or, more commonly, ignore — local elections than it does about the elections themselves.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 14. Councillors: The Voice of Choice

Abstract
In early 2009, Barbara Windsor’s character, Peggy, in the soap opera EastEnders, was prompted — by the planned opening of a massage parlour near the Queen Vic pub where she was landlady — to stand as an Independent candidate for election to the fictional Walford London Borough Council. In the event, at the request of future-husband Archie Mitchell, she withdrew from the campaign ahead of their wedding, but a later storyline involved the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, visiting the Queen Vic, in an episode watched by 8 million viewers. Years before these momentous events, the Local Government Association (LGA) had lobbied hard to get an informative and sympathetic local government storyline into ITV’s North Yorkshire soap, Emmerdale, and you can understand why. The image of councillors conveyed to TV viewers — even before the ninth Dr Who’s encounter with the alien, flatulent and definitely unelected Lord Mayor of Cardiff (‘Boom Town’) and her city centre nuclear power station scheme — has been not so much bad as awful. Coronation Street’s Councillor Audrey Roberts, handicapped by having to be unconvincingly scripted as an Independent on what in reality would be a party-dominated council, was self-important and manipulable. EastEnders’ Ian Beale, in his brief membership of Walford Council, operated entirely self-interestedly and quite possibly corruptly. And the two outstanding ‘state of the nation’ drama serials of the 1990s — Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, with Robert Lindsay, and Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, with Christopher Eccleston — both had councillors’ abuse of power and corruptibility running through their storylines (see Brooke, 2005; Mahony, 2005).
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 15. The Local Government Workforce

Abstract
A key message in Chapter 14 was that there is no such person as a ‘typical councillor’, and that we should avoid making unthinking generalisations as if there were. There are — or were at the time of writing — over a hundred times as many employees of councils as there are elected members, so it is at least as important to avoid a similar trap with them. Which is one reason why this book’s very first Exhibit takes the form it does — listing a small fraction of the hundreds of careers and thousands of job titles to be found within our multi-functional, multi-service local authorities.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 16. Political Parties

Abstract
Like it or not — and this chapter concludes by examining both sides of the case — political parties and party politics are a central feature of contemporary local government across most of the UK, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In the overwhelming majority of councils it is within closed party group meetings that the serious policy debates take place and key decisions are made, rather than at the formal open public meetings of the council, democratically important as these are. The first part of the chapter outlines the current political landscape of local government and some of its history, including the impact of small parties and Independents. It then compares the organisation and operation of the main parties, inside and outside the council, and concludes by examining the role of the national parties and their respective policies in relation to local government.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 17. Who Makes Policy?

Abstract
Chapters 14 to 16 examined three of the key elements in a council’s policymaking process: elected councillors, the officers who advise them, and the political party groups of which most of them are members. But these were essentially static examinations, or snapshots. This chapter brings them together, focusing on their collective raisons d’être: the actual determination of policy. It is a process that has been transformed structurally by the advent of political executives held to account by an overview and scrutiny regime. Executive members are now held personally responsible and accountable for decisions relating to the management and delivery of services in a wholly different way from committee chairs under the previous system.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 18. Voluntary and Community Groups

Abstract
A curiosity of the modern age of individualised and privatised lifestyles, of iPods, MP3 players, and mobile everything, is not just that organised groups and group activity still exist, but that they have almost certainly increased in recent years. On the face of it, this seems to conflict with the mass of evidence produced by US Professor Robert Putnam in his famous mapping of the alleged breakdown of civic and social community engagement in modern America, Bowling Alone (2000). There is no equivalent body of data for the UK, but what there is would seem to question the direct comparability of the two societies. We appear not, at least to the same extent, to have withdrawn from the social interaction of our equivalent of American bowling clubs and leagues and taken to doing it alone.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Backward and Forward

Frontmatter

Chapter 19. Three Decades, Two Governments, One Direction

Abstract
As will have been apparent from the content, as well as from the regular slippage from one tense to another, this book was written before, during and immediately after the 2010 General Election. That election brought to an end 13 years of New Labour government, and produced the first national peacetime coalition since the 1930s. It would seem, therefore, an exceptionally propitious time to look both forward and backward, which is what this short final part of the book will attempt. This chapter reviews some of the major changes to, and mainly imposed on, local government since the 1970s, under first the Thatcher/Major Conservative Administrations and then the Blair/Brown Labour Administrations. Its broad thesis is that, notwithstanding the dramatic political break in 1997, when Labour gained its largest-ever parliamentary majority, there was a perceptible policy continuity across the period. To use aptly the term deployed in the later years of Comprehensive Performance Assessment (see Exhibit 10.3), the direction of travel remained fundamentally unchanged. Chapter 20 looks forward over a much shorter time period, with the help of early pronouncements from the Coalition Government, reinforced by documentation from various policy think tanks and the like.
David Wilson, Chris Game

Chapter 20. ‘Localism, localism, localism’?

Abstract
We opened the first chapter of this book with a quote from a professional sportsman, so there is a certain symmetry in doing the same in the last chapter. This time it’s the American basketball player, John Wooden, who died aged 99 just as we had reached this point in the book’s revision. Wooden is the only person inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach, and it is in the latter role that he became one of the more widely quoted American sportsmen. ‘When everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking’ was one of his sayings, and he might well have been talking about localism. It seems every mainstream politician today believes — or wants it believed — that they are localists, which makes it a pretty good bet that most aren’t bringing that much heavyweight thought to the matter.
David Wilson, Chris Game
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