In his recent book on the politics of climate change Lord Anthony Giddens called for the creation of an ‘ensuring state’ with the capacity to achieve political and economic convergence across policy sub-systems to tackle what is becoming a global phenomenon.
With Copenhagen only weeks away the need to work strategically at national government level has never been clearer. However, this notion of the ‘ensuring state’ may also have a place at a more local level in terms of the creation of an ‘ensuring council’ - and not just for the purposes of climate change. An ‘ensuring council’ is one that has to balance the macro imperatives against the micro dynamics which exist in local neighbourhoods.
Since the White Paper ‘Strong and Prosperous Communities’ was first published there has been a Government drive towards community engagement and empowerment, which manifested itself in initiatives such as devolvement to neighbourhood management, community kitties and asset transfers, however has the recession now resulted in the application of the brakes to this particular bandwagon? Has the need for financial constraint focused authorities’ minds on the need to act as strategic place shapers? Do councils now fear the breakdown of their capacity to influence the local economy in tackling difficult issues such as unemployment and climate change? Has the agenda moved on from local communities to local economies?
Local authorities need to find the right balance between devolving political systems to a neighbourhood level and the overarching economic and environmental necessity that exists at present and is also likely to worsen in the not too distant future. This tightrope walking act is one that falls nicely within the notion of the ‘ensuring council’.
Whilst devolution to neighbourhoods will remain a dominant policy theme there are challenges and limitations to the role they can fulfil. Firstly, you need to be clear about why you are establishing such governance arrangements in the first place, you also need to decide what levels of autonomy neighbourhood models have and how they will be supported. Can local councillors manage the tensions between strategic and local issues and what relationship should the neighbourhood have with the wider role of the council. APSE’s forthcoming research paper addresses these matters.
The costs of such models must be managed and the creation of political fiefdoms avoided. Capacity to deal with wider issues needs to be retained; this should not just be about perceived improvements in service delivery, neighbourhood working must also contribute to social, economic and environmental well-being of the whole area.
In these difficult times local communities need an ‘ensuring council’ that can balance the tensions between local engagement and strategic need.