Modern Local Government


Janice Morphet

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    To Robin, Sophie and Charlotte


    The pace and scale of reform in local government always seems unremitting to those close to it. For a long period before 1997, the reforms all appeared to be focused on reducing the power and central role of local authorities, both in their democratic leadership of their communities and in being the first point of contact between citizens and government. The changes since 1997 have seen more reforms but, 10 years on, these are seen to be leading somewhere, stages on a journey that could take local government back to a point of local leadership, co-ordination, and direction. In their individual ways these reforms are frequently difficult to understand, and each has a life cycle that initially seems to introduce a very demanding target, which, after incorporation, provides the platform for the next stage of change. As a result of their response to this unremitting change, local authorities are now seen to be leaders of cultural transformation and improvement in the public sector. Local authorities still have much to do but are more confident about how to set about change and how to assess its impact on people's lives.

    The scale of this change, the length of the route map – currently stretching to 2014 – is frequently overlooked in its entirety; there is an overarching direction although it seems very difficult for most to see it. There are problems on the way as well as excursions, diversions, blind alleys, and ‘highwaymen’ which all serve to feed weekly media but distract from a focus on the future. Sometimes these diversions almost seem intended to disguise other intents. This book is an attempt to set out some of the key elements of the reform agenda including the drivers for change before 1997 which still propel future actions. Understanding the way in which the reforms have been generated may provide some tools to understand the plan as a whole.

    This book is also written to allow both central and local government perspectives on local government reform to be understood. There is little that is written about local government from a central government perspective apart from the formal policy documents which appear regularly. Through these an attempt is made to understand what the centre is thinking and the direction the centre sees for the local. Local government attempts to translate this policy into action. Those who write about local government seldom see an overall picture. Some become specialists in particular fields while, for those working in local government, every proposed change, coming as it does in an initially over-prescribed format, seems too much, and an attempt to undermine local government. What is clear is that the overall role and standing of local government has changed in this period, and for local government, an inability to recognise this could result in a failure to take opportunities and to provide much needed advice on successful policy implementation to central government. This approach has also meant that it is difficult for those coming new to local government to understand what is occurring – students, academics, and practitioners have little to use which can provide an overarching narrative. This book also fills this gap.

    The germ of this book started when I was asked to give a presentation to a group of civil servants new to working with local government. The task was to provide them with an understanding of the system, the pressures, and the recent extent of change. This regular slot continued for a few years and started to be used with other groups and some postgraduate students. As time went by, it was clear that the gap between the reality of change at the local level and the understanding of this by academics and others was growing, and I was invited to write this book. During the time of writing much more has changed and helpful comments on the text have shown that the scale and speed of this catches many readers unawares. I hope that the book does fill some of these gaps and that, despite the jargon-filled world that we all live in, it is possible to make sense of what is here. I have tried to make each chapter reasonably self-contained, knowing that readers plunder texts for their immediate needs and I hope that this does not lead to unnecessary repetition for those who are more interested in an end-to-end read.

    As ever, many thanks are due. First to Phil Allmendinger who invited me to write this book and has given continuing support as has Mark Tewdwr-Jones. I have found their assumptions useful in helping me set out my own views. Thanks also go to Chris Bellamy who has provided many useful and detailed comments on the text, taking time from her own major project to do so and for this I am very grateful. Other thanks go to Jane Foulsham and Andrew Whetnall who both had a role in helping me to develop a civil service perspective on these changes after I had spent nearly thirty years in local government. Of course, all opinions, errors, and omissions are mine. Finally thanks to Robin, Sophie, and Charlotte who put up with my constant tapping but who also bring their own considerable insights to the central-local relationship which are always revealing.

    JaniceMorphetWandsworth 2007
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