The (long term (ish)) future of local government

Breaking vows

I start every govcamp with a vow to be quieter and more reflective. This time, I say I will not pitch a session and I’ll keep quiet in sessions and listen more to others.

This typically lasts about 3 1/2 minutes. And so at #localgovcamp last Saturday I pitched a session on scenario planning for local government.

Now scenario planning is a fairly sophisticated practice undertaken by many serious organisations. It involves looking at the data we have now and developing compelling and coherent scenarios about how the world might change. It’s not saying the world will be this way. It’s saying the world could be this way if these things we see now carried on.

It is a tool to assist with planning, especially planning investments that will pay back over a long period.

Good scenario planning is thoughtful, lengthy and evidence based. Ideal in fact for a 45 minute slot at a govcamp (irony there- or is it sarcasm?)

We gave it a go.

Short or long term

I suggested that we look over a fifty year period. I find that as I get older (I’m 43) fifty years doesn’t seem like such a huge expanse of time. Looking over 50 years frees you from having to consider shorter term cyclical issues (like funding cuts following a financial crisis) and to consider bigger, wider changes. On the other hand technology drives change at such a rate that it might be unhelpful to try to look that far into the future.

We settled on a 10-20 year horizon.

Age

The first trend that the group identified which is obviously at the forefront of local government thinking was the ageing population in the UK. People are getting older, potentially staying healthier older but that then means that carers are ageing too. Potentially, over our 20 year timescale the people who are ageing will have less money to contribute to their own care.

This is likely to increase and change demand on local government, other public services and the wider community.

But it may also widen something at least some of us perceived which is intergenerational inequity as a greater proportion of local resources are focused on older people it inevitably follows that these resources are taken from younger people.

Equity

The subject of intergenerational inequity dominated our discussion for quite a while. There is a coherent narrative that says:

as public resources are concentrated on older people (who are more likely to vote) and away from younger people who are less likely to vote this will create a vicious circle whereby local government will tend to more and more focus on the needs and interests of older people at the expense of local people.

Housing was raised in the same context. You can argue that the lack of availability of affordable housing in many parts of the UK is a process whereby older people are becoming more wealthy because they own property funded by young people who do not own property.

We didn’t see it likely that access to affordable decent housing would be radically improved over our twenty year window.

It’s also worth stressing that we were trying to develop coherent narratives, we didn’t make judgements (well most of us didn’t) or try to find solutions. We only had 45 minutes.

Devolution and structures

Will local government be reorganised over our 20year window?

If past performance is any guide then that would be a definite yes. Personally I’ve worked through reorganisation in local government in Wales in the early 90s, Herefordshire in ’97/98 and Shropshire in 08/9. I’m not THAT old.

Whatever the result of the independence referendum in Scotland this year devolution to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London seems to be a one-way street. There was a consensus in our workshop that England will be affected by this though it’s not clear exactly how. We settled on a concept of “differential devolution” which is inline with devolution so far. So powers and expenditure might be released to different “city regions” as they make separate cases with different governance models. We thought that was easier to see than an English Parliament or regional assemblies.

I tried to argue for a scenario in which there is no local government: where social care is handed to the NHS, highways and regulation handed to national agencies and education and child protection handed to local children’s commissioners. And it was pointed out to me that children’s commissioners would, in fact, be local government (as police and crime commissioners are). So we developed a narrative that suggests that local democratic oversight is likely to be persistent. Though the specific role and structure will change. Local bodies seem increasingly likely to be scrutinising, influencing, maybe commissioning rather than doing.

Network society

This discussion seemed to link very closely with a workshop Catherine Howe had pitched about different forms of democracy. I didn’t attend that workshop so I’ll need to look to others to join this up.

This is all very well but…

I know. Scenario planning might be an diverting way to pass an hour at an unconference but does it have application in the real world?

I would argue that it does. When we plan, when we invest, when we draw up strategies and try to do the stuff we used to call Place Shaping, we are making assumptions about how the world will be. All too often these assumptions are tacit. Scenario planning helps, if nothing else, to make those assumptions explicit. That in and of itself is of benefit. It could even lead us to (whisper it) make better investments and lay more effective plans.

And we don’t have to do that much work. Lots of people do scenario planning. Many of them publish it. So at the very least we could just look at the work others have done and ask how our plans would look in the world they are imagining.

I’m going to try to compile a list of scenario planning resources here (or somewhere else if there’s a better place). Any links, let me know.