Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
Soon, each prospective councillor across the country will know if they have persuaded voters to choose them as their representative. In the somewhat confusing patchwork of our local government, most but not all of the unitary councils are completely up for grabs, most but not all of the metropolitan boroughs are contesting one third of their seats, and a large number of district councils are also fighting it out.
I hope that hard working Conservative councillors and candidates are able to convince voters that – regardless of their view on national issues – they deserve to be elected. But what exactly are they being elected to?
Just before I left the Conservative Party to set up my education charity, the New Schools Network, in 2009, I was given one of the overnight shifts for local council elections. It was a fun night because we kept winning things. My job was to send out briefings to MPs, press people and others so they could play the expectations management game – ‘this is not only great, it’s much better than we could have possibly hoped for’ – that often seems the main purpose of any local elections.
But at no point did the conversation focus on what might change as a result of these victories. I wonder if that is because for most of us the answer is ‘not very much’.
Councillors can, of course, make a difference locally. But it’s also the case, as it has been for some time, that they can make much less of a difference than most of their Western counterparts – in Europe, in the US, or in Canada (where 50 per cent of revenue is raised locally compared with five per cent in the UK).
Their powers over crime, transport, education, and – crucially – the funding for those services – remain in most cases extremely limited. I spent some time working in New York for Joel Klein – Bloomberg’s famous schools chief who was able to control and reform all of New York’s schools (and did so very successfully). This is vastly more power and leverage than the London Mayor.
When the Conservative Party came into power in 2010 it promised to change this. It began one section of its manifesto with language that could have been written today (with Brexit exchanged for the MPs’ expenses scandal):
‘The events of recent months have revealed the size of the fissures in our political system. Millions of people in this country are at best detached from democracy, at worst angry and disillusioned. This endangers our ability to work together to solve our common problems. Just putting this down to the shocking revelations of the expenses scandal would be a great mistake. MPs’ expenses might have been the trigger for the public’s anger, but this political crisis is driven by a deeper sense of frustration – that people have too little control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.’
The Big Society agenda – which has since been dropped down a large hole – was supposed to be accompanied by elected mayors in 12 cities, and an increasingly vibrant local media (I’m not sure how we planned to achieve that).
Of course, every opposition is localist and every government is centralist. But it did look for some time as though the localism agenda was gaining momentum, particularly after George Osborne became a late convert (some would argue he starved local authorities of too many funds to be able to use any additional powers sensibly, others that the constraints have forced ingenuity and innovation in local government that was much needed).
The devolution process has always been a bit all over the place – perhaps suiting the already higgledy-piggledy nature of local government (and I do not have the space in this column to go through every new layer including LEPs and local industrial strategies). Bespoke deals based on individuals as much as areas were put in place with different powers and money attached to them.
In general, the responsibility has been less than the hype – Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, who is a deeply impressive Conservative, still has vastly less power than Birmingham council, which in turn has vastly less power than central government. The PCCs do not actually control the police– their lack of real power is possibly reflected in the tiny percentage of the electorate that can be bothered to vote for them. The money that Whitehall has supposedly devolved – such as adult education budgets – are slow to arrive and extremely small compared to the rest of education spending.
It also seems as if even recent progress has stalled. While the new mayor of North of Tyne is due to be elected today, experts I talked to see no new metro mayors anywhere on the Government’s depleted domestic policy agenda.
This is, presumably, yet another casualty of Brexit and also a reflection of the fact that our Prime Minister and Chancellor are more instinctively authoritarian than their predecessors. Whitehall never likes relinquishing control, and nor does this Prime Minister.
Does it matter? It’s obviously not as simple as ‘give people local control, and their dissatisfaction will disappear’. Trump’s election in the US and protests in France – both far more devolved countries – make clear that there’s no easy inverse correlation between devolution and populism. Nor do more powerful local governments necessarily perform better; poor policy and underwhelming administration are not the preserve of Whitehall.
But there is good evidence that devolved public services do a better job than big centralised ones. That doesn’t have to be to local authorities – schools have been substantially devolved below the local authority level and are performing increasingly well.
We also do a disservice to very talented administrators and politicians outside London and the South East who could – if allowed – make a substantial difference to their areas.
Finally, we miss the opportunity to discover what is effective by allowing areas to try policies. The charter school programme in America has improved consistently by seeing where different states have got it right and wrong – and those experiments in turn made it much easier for us to design good school reform here in the UK.
I wish Conservative candidates campaigning for these elections the best of luck. I also hope that in future they inherit a position that gives them the power to do more for their constituents.