The year local government takes charge
2012 looks like being a big year for local politics. Strangely, this may turn out to be a mixed blessing for local government.
Media attention in this country tends to focus on national politics. That’s natural enough. It’s common to everyone and it’s sexy big ticket items delivered by big personalities on the biggest stages. However, most of the things that make the greatest difference to our day-to-day lives - clean streets, functioning schools, rubbish collected, community safety - are determined at a local level. Despite this we struggle as a whole to get terribly excited about local politics. As evidenced by the consistently miserable turn out for local elections.
But could this be the year in which this all changes? Just over the horizon we have a series of events that could give local politics real bite. Londoners will be familiar with Ken v Boris round two, but around the country May will also see referenda about elected mayors in 18 of our major cities. Greg Clark has announced that the mayoral elections for those who opt to have them would be bought forward to November, making a 'Super Thursday' with the elections for the new police commissioners: themselves a little-heralded reform that could yet spark off huge public interest as they bring a whole set of red button issues under the control of readily-identifiable, electorally-accountable local figures.
It won’t all be plain sailing however, in the case of both mayors and police commissioners there remains an urgent need for clarification about exactly what their powers will be and how they relate to existing structures, particularly the council. For many in local government this is likely to be a headache and may account for a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the sector.
2012 is also the year in which much of the government’s localist legislation comes home to roost. Councils will acquire a power of general competence that turns upside down the statutory basis on which they operate. Communities will acquire new powers over planning in their neighbourhoods, will be able to challenge councils' delivery of services and bid to take over assets of community value. Some fear that these reforms will be a bit of a damp squib, but whether or not they’re used at any scale they do appear to transfer control of the debate about public service delivery away from Whitehall and the town hall and place it in the hands of local people.
At the same time, a series of technical and slightly opaque reforms will also lend a sharper edge to local politics. Reform of business rate distribution, changes to housing benefit regulations and localisation of council tax relief all give local authorities more control over income and expenditure but embroil them in tough political choices. All this at a time when shrinking budgets and a stagnant economy continue to force hard decisions about the allocation of scarce resources.
Over the course of this year local politics is therefore likely to become higher profile and involve higher stakes for many people. There are certainly doubts about how well different elements of the reform agenda will work and about how smoothly they will fit together. Many councils will fear that an increased focus on local politics will be accompanied by a fragmentation of their powers. Optimists will place their faith in the creative potential of a little chaos. Contested political spaces are, almost by definition, more consequential. As arguments about the responsibilities of mayors, councils, police commissioners and communities begin to develop they should drive greater public attention and engagement.
So 2012 could just be the year in which local politics really breaks through into public consciousness. That’s got to be a good thing, though some in local government may find themselves looking back a little wistfully at quieter, simpler times.
Jonathan Carr-West is a director at the Local Government Information Unit. Follow him on Twitter @joncarrwest