Debate on the state of local government in England and the case for the reinvigoration of local democracy, 15 June 2023

Government should consider accelerating work to devolve greater legal and fiscal powers to local government, moving to long-term and sustainable funding arrangements, and enshrining the Charter of Local Self-Governance in UK law.

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Key messages

  • Councils touch peoples’ lives every day and have experienced first-hand how national and international pressures impact on communities, from arranging accommodation for those fleeing conflict in Afghanistan and Ukraine to supporting residents with the rising cost of living. Local government is also fundamentally different to central government, with a more direct line between residents wishes, their elected councillors and local decision making. This is perhaps why regular polls by the LGA have shown that residents are more likely to trust their council than central government.
  • As place leaders, councils have the potential to identify and address the challenges that matter the most to their local communities. However, councils can only achieve the ambitions of its electorate if the relationship between national and local government is reset to allow for much greater local determination. To achieve this change, Government should consider accelerating work to devolve greater legal and fiscal powers to local government, moving to long-term and sustainable funding arrangements, and enshrining the Charter of Local Self-Governance in UK law.
  • Councils work best when their decisions are well informed by the lived experience of residents, business and community leaders. However, Government research on community life shows less than a third of citizens engage in civic participation and only about a quarter believe they can personally influence decisions in their local area.
  • Councillors are a vital part of the local democracy, representing the needs of their residents and working across the area to improve outcomes for all. However, this great privilege also comes with challenges. According to LGA research, seven in 10 councillors experience abuse and intimidation and 28 per cent feel frequently or occasionally at risk in their role as a councillor. This abuse has a deterrent effect on prospective councillors and councillors’ ambitions to seek leadership roles.
  • Good decision-making needs people who reflect the range of experiences, background and insight that exist in their communities. However, councillors are restricted by law to attend council meetings in person, which can deter a range of people including parents of young children, carers, workers and disabled people from stepping forward to represent their communities. Government should lower the barriers to participation and legislate to allow councils the flexibility to decide for them how they should use virtual meeting technologies.
  • Councils can only thrive when these barriers to engagement with the formal representative process are removed. The average turnout for standalone local elections is around 34 per cent, with local election registers being only 83 per cent complete and 89 per cent accurate when last assessed in 2018. Improving registration levels and encouraging citizens to vote at all elections is a first step to reinvigorating local democracy. The Government should take note of the Electoral Commission review of the annual canvass process and completeness of the register which is due to be published in September 2023.


Centralisation and the arguments for greater devolution

Devolution to local leaders, with real power and backed by sustainable funding, is the most efficient and effective way to address the current fiscal crisis and secure a path to long-term prosperity. Research commissioned by the LGA on Fiscal devolution shows that that UK is an international outlier, with the most fiscally centralised systems in the developed world. In addition, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that countries with a greater level of devolution experience lower levels of regional inequality.

New Local’s Community calling report highlights that 75 per cent of people think that allowing communities to have more of say in decisions that affect their area would be more effective than decisions taken centrally, and 73 per cent think national politicians should transfer more power to local areas. Regular polling of resident by the LGA shows that trust in local councils is high, with 66 per cent saying they most trusted their local council to make decisions about local services, compared to 14 per cent who said they most trusted central government.

Civic engagement

The LGA is passionate about strengthening resident engagement in democratic processes from engaging with local ward councillors and responding to council consultations, to voting at local elections or even standing for election. There are several ways to achieve this, including:

  • encouraging more innovative community engagement approaches to reach underrepresented and marginalised communities
  • making formal consultation practices more accessible
  • demystifying local government and the role of local councillors
  • improving electoral registration rates and turnout at local elections
  • lowering the barriers to people from all walks of life standing for election, by allowing virtual council meetings and addressing abuse of elected members
  • highlighting the calibre and professionalism of council leaders.

Community Engagement

Given the high levels of trust that residents place in local councils, and their strong links into the communities they serve, thanks in large part to the presence of rooted elected members, local government is well placed to lead on community engagement. This can range from conversations around micro-level projects: for example, design of a playground, or parking restrictions on a particular group of roads, through to decisions on the council’s overall budget priorities, or entitlement to social care support.

A paradox of the current funding situation for local government, is that reduced resources have made community engagement all the more important – councils are having to make difficult decisions around spending and services. Such decisions have the potential to disproportionately impact particular communities and groups if not carefully designed, making effective and genuine engagement all the more important. However, engagement itself costs money, especially if it is to be undertaken in a meaningful and innovative manner. Reduced resources have meant that many councils have shed engagement teams and professionals, reducing their capacity and ability to go beyond the basic statutory requirements for engagement.

Many councils report that standard engagement techniques – for example physical or online surveys – increasingly represent an ineffective means of genuinely engaging with residents, especially in under-represented groups. Some are finding that a similar group of residents responds to most surveys, or that there is a degree of ‘consultation fatigue’ and that response rates are declining. Councils around the country are using new ways to reach a wider range of residents, but this can be costly in terms of human resource and professional expertise. It is important that government recognises the value that local councils can bring to community engagement, not only in terms of policy decisions that lie within local government’s remit, but also as part of wider-ranging agendas such as levelling up and net zero. Such recognition needs to be linked to reliable and sufficient resourcing of local councils to build and maintain their engagement functions.

Voting in local elections

Elections are a fundamental part of the democratic process, where every citizen can exercise their right to vote. However, turnout at local elections remains low, averaging 34 per cent for locals run independently from national elections. To vote in local or national elections, electors must be registered on the appropriate electoral register; Individual Electoral Registration was introduced in 2014 and replaced the household registration system. The aim of this change was to give each elector control of their own registration and improve the accuracy of the register. The process of updating the register, the annual canvass, was reformed in 2019 and uses data-matching to allocate householder to one of three routes of action depending on whether changes of the register are expected.

These reforms have made the registration process less administratively burdensome. However, a review of electoral registration by the Elections Commission in 2022 found evidence that the new canvass process is not fully picking up population movement and that the number of attainers being registered has been falling since the introduction of individual electoral registration in 2014.

The Government should consider:

  • Reviewing the process of registration from end-to-end, including the realistic cost of funding registration processes to a satisfactory standard.
  • What further data could be used included in the annual canvass data matching process to better identify population movement and attainers, such as renewals of driving licenses and passports and the issuing of new national insurance numbers at 16.
  • Commissioning the Electoral Commission to refresh the “Got five?” electoral registration campaign and resource local authorities to do much greater outreach in the run up to elections.
  • The results of the Electoral Commission review of the 2023 local elections and act to address any unnecessary barriers to voting.

Local politics and politicians

Councillors are the lifeblood of local government. The decisions they make contribute to people’s wellbeing and prosperity and it is in all our interests to support a strong and vibrant local democracy with councillors who reflect the communities they represent. However, increasing levels of abuse and intimidation in political and public discourse are negatively impacting politicians and democracy. In research last year, the LGA found that seven in 10 councillors who responded to the survey had experience abuse of intimidation in the previous 12 months and 28 per cent feel frequently or occasionally at risk in their role as a councillor.

Further research by the LGA found that of councillors who reported experiencing abuse or intimidation, almost all said they had experience it on multiple occasions and that it was ongoing. For many, abuse influenced their decision on whether to stand for election again, showing the deterrent effect that abuse can have on local democracy. Respondents commented that misogynistic, homophobic and racist abuse were particular common, meaning that people with protected characteristics often bore the brunt of the most vitriolic abuse.

Unless steps are taken to safeguard those in civic life, we risk weakening the very heart of local government. These steps should include:

  • Resourcing the police to respond robustly to threats and harassment of elected members, including a single point of contact in each police force for all elected people, not just members of parliament.
  • Producing guidance setting out what councillors should expect from the police in relation to tackling crime against them linked to their role as councillors.
  • The reintroduction of a harms-based offence in the Online Safety Bill and work from Ofcom to specifically address online abuse which effects councillors and other elected members.
  • The Government should bring forward legislation to put it beyond doubt that councillors can proactively withhold their home address from the register of pecuniary interests to reduce risks to the individual.
  • The Government should widen the scope of the Defending Democracy Programme to explicitly include the safety, security and wellbeing of locally elected politicians, rather than focus solely on national politicians and foreign interference.