We’re losing that civic sense we once had, or we’ve lost it already. Now we look to elected mayors to bring a sense of identity to a city or town, as Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have done to London. But it’s personality-based, not institutional. In the 80s civic power and identity was devolved down from the GLC to the London councils, but a reduction of funds from the centre, very limited power to raise money locally, and a government policy of taking away power and loading up responsibility has undermined local authority as well. Back in the 19th century money poured into local government coffers and great town halls and other civic buildings graced the skyline just as churches had done in a previous age. There was a surge of confidence which led also to a resurgence of church building, picking up on that same Gothic style. God and mammon worked well together. All that confidence has gone now. If you have any new civic buildings they’re leased back, not owned. (God is leased back too, but that’s another story.) Central government has done a pretty efficient job in arrogating power to itself, and local government has to live off a diet of criticism, never praise. Who’s fault is it that social work is in crisis – underfunded councils, who have all the time to prioritise, or central government which underfunds?
In Victorian times local councils and the new capitalism out of the industrial revolution lived side by side. Now power is either devolved down, as with education, or up, as with funding. Who would be a councillor? Think back to the great civic leaders like Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham. They’re gone forever, unless central government finds some humility and devolves down.
Central government may have thought itself as above the local funding crisis, always pointing the finger, blaming, arguing for its own financial probity, and the failings of others. But then came the credit crisis, eroding central government authority. Then the debacle over MPs pay eroded parliament’s authority. Local government is scorned at worse, a matter of indifference at best for most of us. The Tories argue the answer to the authority vacuum is to encourage local initiatives, below local council level, and give local people power and responsibility, but much of the problem lies not with local government as such, but rather an undermining of its authority and financial base, so that it’s impossible for it to function properly.
Once local initiatives of the kind Cameron espouses either fail to work or never get started, as they assuredly will, then it should be local authority that reasserts itself, as the necessary and logical intermediate tier. But no, as night follows day power will be clawed back by the centre. It will take courage of a kind that none of the political parties have displayed to give power and resources back to local authorities and restore a proper balance between central and local power. As for local initiatives I’m not disparaging those for a second but they will need support and they’ll need to co-ordinate, to become part of a wider structure – and that should be one tier up, local authorities, not a government department or quango.