For nearly 30 years, since Tony Crosland declared “the party is
over”, a succession of governments has struggled with local
government reform. Barely a year has passed without one or more
pieces of legislation aimed at changing the frameworks for
governance and financial control or altering the form and substance
of local services.
The pendulum has swung with some services being radically
centralised and others being localised. It is at times hard to
discern any intellectual or ideological coherence underpinning
changes – except that ministers appear to want to claim the
benefits centrally while allocating any blame for failure locally.
Recently, central government’s attention has switched to local
governance and a patchwork of models has emerged across England.
Despite the language of increased transparency and greater
accountability, most of the councils with new governance
arrangements have merely entrenched majority party rule. This is at
odds with public opinion, which often favours more radical change.
For example, in almost a third of the contests where voters have
been given the option of a directly elected mayor they have chosen
to pick outsiders ranging from Ken Livingstone to H’Angus the
However, we will soon be able to see what the impact of more
fundamental changes to local governance could be. A fortnight after
the elections to the Scottish parliament, Labour and the Liberal
Democrats have hammered out a new partnership agreement.
At its heart is the fulfilment of the Liberals’ aspiration for
proportional representation in local government. This will lead to
sweeping changes in Scottish local government where Labour has had
a dominant position in most of west and central Scotland for
decades – winning 80 to 90 per cent of council seats on 50 per cent
or less of the popular vote. The initial impact may be to increase
turbulence in the Scottish Labour Party – councillors dominate many
local parties and are threatening to deselect Labour members of the
Scottish parliament (MSPs) as punishment for the loss of local
But in four years time, when the next local elections are held,
Scotland will emerge with a far more diverse and representative
array of local councils. Two big questions hover over this reform.
First, will it actually change anything – or will it just bring in
a slightly different set of middle-aged men to run local services
with the only change of substance being that they are from three or
four parties rather than one. Second, if the changes in Scotland
work and deliver better and more representative governance, how
long can English local government remain unreformed?
John McTernan is a political analyst.