The Guardian view on local democracy: make it matter | Editorial

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The 19th-century Birmingham pastor Robert Dale would have been dismayed by today’s apathy towards local elections. As one of the greatest proselytisers for the role of municipal government in Victorian England, Dale made it his job to celebrate the virtues of public-spirited service in the interests of the community: “If we are true to each other and true to the town,” he suggested in one 1881 sermon, “we may do deeds as great as those done by Pisa, Florence and Venice in their triumphant days.”

Slightly ambitious perhaps. Nevertheless, such pioneering idealism inspired an era of civic achievement that transformed England’s towns and cities. But the better housing, libraries, swimming pools and schools would not have been possible without locally controlled revenues, which were then hoovered up by the centralising state in the 20th century. The Thatcher era, in which metropolitan councils were distrusted as dangerous sites of socialist experimentation, led to a further concentration of powers in the centre. Under David Cameron and George Osborne, local councils subsequently became the fall guys of austerity, forced to swallow crippling cuts to grants from Westminster.

The journey away from localism – notwithstanding recent innovations such as the metro mayors – has helped to create one of Europe’s most economically unbalanced countries, draining regional politics of its prestige and capacity to make a real impact in vital areas. In a major study last week, the Institute for Government reported that local administration in England had been “hollowed out” since 2010, and is forced increasingly to limit itself to the provision of statutory services. Three-quarters of controllable local authority spending now goes on social care. Amid rising demand and costs, this comes increasingly at the expense of other neighbourhood services. Between 2010 and 2020, for example, library closures and reduced hours led to a 52% reduction in visits.

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The government aspires to address a crisis made worse by its predecessors through its levelling up agenda. Its white paper on this subject makes important points, suggesting that greater agency for local leaders and communities can restore pride to places that have felt neglected by London. This is a sentiment that Pastor Dale could happily endorse. But without significantly enhanced revenue-raising powers, including the ability to borrow more freely, the promised devolution risks delivering responsibility without power. Meanwhile, levelling up funds have so far been parcelled out at the whim of Westminster.

The public continue to draw their own conclusions. At last year’s council elections, roughly two-thirds of those eligible to vote failed to do so. At a time when the level of popular cynicism towards Westminster has soared, such desultory numbers testify to another layer of deep disaffection with the way our politics works. One of the key ideas in the government’s levelling up white paper is “empowerment” – a buzzword of our times because so many people think there is far too little of it. As this newspaper has argued, electoral reform and greater proportional representation would help address this deficit at a national level. Lower down England’s political pyramid, real resources are needed that would belatedly allow local knowledge and imagination to be fruitfully deployed. After Thursday’s polls, the media’s overwhelming focus will be on what the results mean for Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer. England’s cities, towns and villages deserve better.



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