Local councils deserve a round of applause – they’re doing a tough job


Sunday, 3 April

By Chris Twigg, Founder and Director at Inner Circle Consulting


Every year my brother and his Navy mates, both those still serving and former servicemen, get together. I am struck by their camaraderie and kinship that has lasted over 20 years. It’s the same tone that’s celebrated in national campaigns on TV and across the UK to celebrate the Navy and its national importance.

Where I work, people talk fondly about their memories of local government, the councillors and workers that have inspired them and the impact of our projects. But local government isn’t celebrated. Not nationally, not locally. And it needs to be. Because it’s doing a tough job that’s only getting tougher and tougher.

Councils have experienced on average a real term cut in core funding of 50 per cent since 2011. On top of that, council workers have had a real terms cut in pay over the last ten years.

Local government had been grappling with the effects of a decade of austerity and its impact on services when Covid hit, and many of those already tired and stretched teams have been working seven day weeks and 14-hour days over the last two years to deliver a pandemic response on top of normal business. When was the last time anyone stood outside and clapped for their council?

A big part of the problem is that central government doesn’t much appreciate or like local government. All too often, it sees it as second rate.

A particularly critical tone was set by local government minister Eric Pickles who, during his 2010-2015 stint, agreed a 27 per cent cut with the Treasury in the grant local councils receive from Whitehall.

This sparked multiple national rows about the frequency of council bin collections, the value of council free-sheets, changes to the planning system and to councils’ revenue-raising powers.

This idea of councils as tin-pot organisations that fix pot holes badly and don’t collect bins often enough has stuck. There’s no national storytelling of the range of services that councils provide, that they just get on with, and that many of us don’t see – and as a result, we don’t have the same emotional attachment to them as we might do for the NHS.

Of course, the big difference with the NHS is that there’s nothing political between it and MPs. When NHS cuts hurt, parliament knows about it. But when local government cuts hurt, it’s local councillors that take the flak – which is very handy for the Treasury.

On top of which, local councils have a statutory duty to balance their budgets no matter how much central funds dwindle. The NHS has no such duty.

We need local government and its work now more than ever. The pandemic revealed huge and deepening inequalities across the UK and made vulnerable people even more vulnerable. Now the deepening cost of living crisis is going to increase even more the strains on council services to provide support for people who are living on the edge.

We need to see and appreciate council teams who are helping the most vulnerable by providing services around adult and children’s social care. We need to support the work of council teams trying to regenerate areas, improve town centres and make people’s homes safer and warmer.

We should appreciate the effort that’s involved in running these organisations of several thousand people. And we should be looking to recruit the best and the brightest to these jobs.

Local government works best when it works with its communities and there’s trust between the two. Celebrating it can restore that trust.

We need national government to have a clear and positive position on local government. For millions of people living on the edge of poverty and distress, this is incredibly necessary. Supporting the job of councils and their workers can help build trust between the people providing those services and the people who need them the most.

And of course, understanding local government as a place where innovation can thrive and diligent, talented people work, could radically speed the delivery of the government’s much-touted levelling-up agenda.