6.6.2  Local and Regional Government

(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/662.htm)

Part of the role of politicians is to arrange for public services to be provided; they act as intermediaries between the public and the service-providers – whether the latter are permanent public servants, or are in civil society, or are employed by private companies.  There is a subsidiarity in political representation – such as regions, States, counties, cities and parishes – and another subsidiarity, not necessarily corresponding, in the management of service provision.  Negotiated governance depends upon how, and at what level of subsidiarity, the politicians interact with the service-providers.  As illustrated by the earlier example of policing (2.8), there is scope for political intervention at each level of management of every public service: deciding policy, allocating budgets, setting performance targets, regulating, choosing contractors or employing public servants. 

There are several arguments which can be put forward to make the case for centralisation of political power in public service delivery:

·      It can deliver equality of services, such as policing and education, across the whole country.

·      It can enable difficult decisions to be taken in the public interest, like selecting a location for unpopular but necessary services such as waste disposal facilities.

·      It can enable coherent policies to be implemented, so that a road network for example can serve everybody's needs.

There are also arguments against centralisation.  Localism may offer a better model of democracy, where power flows upwards rather than downwards.  The distribution of power has several advantages:

·      It is a safeguard against the State becoming oppressive or totalitarian.

·      Local control makes citizens more interested in politics and gives them pride in their community, as is the case with London’s mayor.[1] 

·      Local control can allow public services to be more responsive to local needs.  Local government can be responsible to the people, without passing the buck, coordinating services and prioritising the budget.  In Britain, the government launched the ‘Total Place’ initiative in 2009 to address this requirement,[2] and a local mayor in France for example already has these capabilities.

·      There is also an emerging trend towards allowing individuals to choose which options they would prefer, within an allocated budget;[3] this is perhaps the best possible guarantee of acceptability.

·      It is possible to largely depoliticise and decentralise some services by assigning greater roles to civil society and private companies, possibly with efficiency benefits ( and respectively).  This increases individual choice and can allow services to meet different requirements; China has recently recognised the value of civil society, for example.[4]

In practice, political control can be layered – reflecting the practical need for some aspects of service delivery to be co-ordinated on a regional or national basis.  National politicians may have a role in defining objectives and setting standards, as with an inspectorate for schools; local or regional decisions about schools, for example, might have to be constrained by national policy on the curriculum and examination standards. 

In this book it is argued that the acceptability of governance is increased if people have more choice and if they are able to participate in meaningful negotiations about decisions which affect them.  A layered approach enables negotiations to be conducted at the level most suited to achieving a balance between conflicting interests: national issues and regional issues should be negotiated at those levels of subsidiarity, whereas local decisions need not involve people outside the locality.  Acceptability can then be maximised across the body of people to whom each issue is relevant.  Where practicable, local control is preferable because it can offer increased choice – and therefore greater acceptability.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Michael Kenny, writing in Prospect magazine in May 2008, wrote an article entitled More mayors for England in which he made the following comments:

“English mayors are popular and successful. The government should legislate to introduce more of them.

The London mayoral election has got a lot of people in the capital talking about politics again.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2008/05/moremayorsforengland/.

The political impact having a mayor of London was further endorsed in a report by IPPR and PricewaterhouseCoopers in October 2009, entitled Who’s accountable? The challenge of giving power away in a centralised political culture, which addressed the need for the public to have a clear perception of who is responsible for what; it concluded that:

“if real power is transferred to highly visible and accountable bodies, like the Scottish government or the Mayor of London, the public do understand who is responsible.”

This document was available in May 2014 at http://www.ippr.org/publications/55/1733/whos-accountable-the-challenge-of-giving-power-away-in-a-centralised-political-culture.  The quoted extract comes from its Summary (p. 19).

[2] The Total Place website at http://www.localleadership.gov.uk/totalplace/ was available in May 2014, but included this statement:

**Please note that as of November 2010 this website is no longer being updated. The Community of Practice has the most up-to-date news of Total Place, and the Community Budgets website has information about this new initiative.**

[3] Simon Duffy, John Waters and Jon Glasby described the concept of personal budgets in English social care in an article entitled Personalisation and adult social care: future options for the reform of public services, which was published in Policy & Politics vol. 38 no 4, in 2010.  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.asdinfowales.co.uk/resource/r_s_simon_duffy_paper.pdf.

[4] On 12 April 2014, The Economist published an article entitled Chinese civil society, which noted that “a flourishing civil society is taking hold” and commented that “[t]he organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society”; it was available at http://www.economist.com/node/21600747.