Taking a long hard look at what 'democracy', 'citizenship' and 'ethics' really mean in local government in the second decade of the 21st Century may seem like a luxury when councils are struggling to empty the bins, house the homeless, care for elderly residents and meet a million other demands with ever fewer resources. But reclaiming the vital connection between the mightiest of principles upon which local government was founded and day to day actions that matter to local people is the best way for local authorities to take control in these difficult times.
APSE’s launch of 'Reclaiming Local Democracy' by Ines Newman, visiting senior research fellow at De Montfort University, was a welcome chance to reflect upon the principles that guide local government decision-making – rather than the pragmatics of the decisions themselves. The book suggests that councils should consider their fundamental purpose and develop an ethical framework to guide their thinking and actions in order to re-engage with their citizens. As Manchester's Sir Richard Leese commented, in talking about the 'active citizen', this book is talking about protecting rights that previous generations have fought for.
Many of these arguments chime with APSE's 'ensuring council' approach, which places emphasis on local democratic accountability and demonstrates the connection between community leadership, social justice and maintaining capacity to deliver services and meet local needs. Derbyshire County Council's leader, Cllr Anne Western, whose council has formally adopted the ambition of becoming an ensuring council, said at the book launch that putting the politics back in local government provides much-needed optimism and that residents are 'reassured' when the council runs services itself. I couldn't agree more.
Retaining core capacity is a political priority for Derbyshire, for example, as this was identified as a major issue in terms of both community needs and the local economy. This has led to the council revisiting earlier plans around adult social care and residential homes to ensure much remains directly delivered. Another priority is reducing youth unemployment. The council has provided support for apprenticeships at higher wages than the national rate along with targeted training, transport and support projects.
By its very nature, forging a closer connection between democracy and delivery will look very different in every borough. But reclaiming local democracy gives each council more power to voice its citizens' views at national level, which, in turn, should enhance the ability to deliver locally.