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Liam Booth-Smith

Local Government: The Opera


In the final scenes of Don Giovanni, our titular protagonist is escorted down to the depths of the underworld. His maligned servant Leporello crawls out from under a table and endures a moment of tortured silence. Confronted with his own freedom, he is forced to ask himself – what do I do now?

There is a parallel here for local government, with Sir Eric Pickles now exiting stage left, and the sector asking itself – what do we do now?

The last five years has seen significant damage done to the relationship between local and central government. In part this was to serve the political expediency of the Secretary of State. Yet, it was also an effective means by which to create the conditions for the sort of change I would describe as transformative. Yes the methods were sharp elbowed and the dialogue at times caustic but can anyone really say that local government isn’t closer to a more decentralised settlement now than it was in 2010?

In Greg Clark the prevailing wisdom is that local government now has a Secretary of State it can do business with. Whilst he might adopt a more conciliatory tone there will still be a steely determination to see through policy he himself set in motion during his first stint at DCLG. He might not have a pearl handed revolver in his drawer but he certainly has an agenda. Local government will have to make the relationship work and preferably in a more productive way than with his predecessor. This, for me at least, cuts to core of the “after Pickles” question. What is local government now?

When faced with freedom, Leporello chose not to forge his own path but instead go in search of another master, a servant to the end. We the audience are left to postulate as to the reason for his choice.  I have always considered it a symptom of a lack of imagination. Leporello could not imagine a world in which he wasn’t who he was, instead of who he might be.

I can’t help but feel there is a lesson here for Local government. It surely will have another difficult five years ahead of it. The question of genuine transformative change came on the agenda from time to time in the last parliament. However, the adversarial nature of the relationship between Secretary of State and sector made such a question, albeit valid, too easily ignored as politically motivated. This time it will be much more difficult to do so again.

I don’t believe local government is searching for a new master, nor do I believe it lacks the capacity to change. I believe the direction of travel is for greater local discretion.  There are enough real and symbolic signs that government wants to embrace decentralisation. All that’s left is imagination, to forge a new path or retread an old one? A point lost on Leporello: I sincerely hope it is not on local government.

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