Margaret Thatcher; whether we like it or not, she was the woman who transformed Britain, perhaps more so than other individual in recent history. In this article I want to focus on how Thatcher and her ilk contributed towards the death of local government. For some readers the very title ‘the death of local government’ may sound like an exaggeration, sensationalist even, and it could be the case that I am giving the Iron Lady too much credit. But nonetheless I stand by the title. Local government in this country is dead and has been for quite some time.
If councillors, who sit in council chambers the length and breadth of Scotland were to resign on mass tomorrow I don’t think it would make that much difference. The r
eality is that councils are run by senior managers who follow their orders from central government and the role of a councillor is often reduced to providing democratic camouflage for decisions taken elsewhere. Following a series of reforms begun by Margaret Thatcher, what we have in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) is a system of local administration whereby 32 local authorities are instructed by senior politicians to follow the same economic policy. To describe this state of affairs as local ‘government’ is surely something of a misnomer.
Thatcher’s neoliberal reforms contributed to the removal of power from elected politicians as local government was broken up and fragmented in order to neutralise political opposition to her policies. Many of local government’s powers were systematically removed, particularly powers pertaining to finances.
Rate capping was introduced followed by the removal of controls to vary business rates, whilst severe restrictions were placed on the amount of money local authorities could borrow in order to fund capital investment projects – a deliberate policy which paved the way for PFI. Meanwhile, planning powers were curbed as power shifted from elected politicians to the private sector. The end results are there for everyone to see: decimated high streets filled with charity shops, betting shops and cheap takeaways and out-of-town retail parks which have turned everywhere into nowhere. Follow the thread carefully and all of these developments have their origins in the removal of statutory powers from local government.
One of Thatcher’s many achievements was introducing a neo-liberal way of thinking into public sector management. Steve Biko once wrote that the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed – and whilst I doubt that senior managers running mini-bureaucracies in the town hall could be constituted as ‘the oppressed’ – nonetheless many of their minds are influenced by the discursive narratives of neoliberalism.
When the Iron Lady herself left office in 1990 the Thatcherite assault on local government continued unabated under the governments of John Major and then Tony Blair who was the greatest Thatcherite since Thatcher
When the Iron Lady herself left office in 1990 the Thatcherite assault on local government continued unabated under the governments of John Major and then Tony Blair who was the greatest Thatcherite since Thatcher. Dexter Whitfield, the director of the European Services Strategy unit and author the authoritative book In Place Of Austerity describes the impact of the transformations. Two great qualitative transformations occurred: firstly, local authorities became purchasers and not just providers of services. Secondly, policies framed around Best Value guidelines placed local authorities under the strict control of the Chief Executives and the top layer of senior management but not the elected members. Local government’s death knell was sounding.
Councils became ‘commissioning agents’. Commissioning is informed by a bureaucratic view of the world which insists that it no longer matters who provides public services so long as the service is provided, establishing the perfect mindset for privatisation. Language was an important weapon for the neoliberal modernisers: service users or citizens were now constructed as ‘clients’, ‘consumers’ and ‘customers’, with privatisation policies window dressed as ‘consumer choice’.
Whitfield explains how public services became quantified and organised in order to be readily specified into a contract, with operational values remoulded to meet commercial criteria. Risks were commoditised so they could be priced and grants were replaced with contracts. The end result was a growth in bureaucracy and a rise in middle management. Furthermore, as managers took on the responsibility for implementing neoliberal reforms the pay gap between senior management and the actual workers who deliver front line services increased dramatically. But the role of the public sector manager was also transformed; gone were the days when they managed staff and developed their service; now they were called upon to oversee ‘service reviews’, ‘options appraisals’, ‘business cases’ and ‘tendering procedures’ whilst at the same time enforcing and being subjected to a culture of management by performance.
Neoliberalism not only transformed local government. Where the private sector could not make a profit, the voluntary sector was brought in as a cheaper alternative to local government. This resulted in a cultural takeover of the voluntary sector by business values and practices. Paid staff chasing external funding became the norm. With over 100,000 paid workers now working in the sector in Scotland it is more often than not referred to as the ‘third sector’ with the larger organisations competing with one another to win crucial contracts in the ‘public services delivery market’. According to Whitfield, contracts are typically awarded to organisations that reduce the cost of labour and employ fewer staff.
We are now in a period where many Scottish local authorities are struggling to provide basic services, as they find their budgets are slashed every year. However, rather than initiating a discussion about the systemic failure of local authorities to challenge central government, councillors across the country are instead discussing the feasibility of transferring council assets to other providers. Asset transfer potentially involves the whole-scale transfer of public assets including libraries, swimming pools, leisure centres and community centres to third sector, even private providers. Whitfield argues that it would mark the completion of the Thatcherite ideal of ‘real public ownership’. Moreover, it would fundamentally undermine the democratic ideal that public services should be free to all and funded out of general taxation.
Councillors often argue that the communities should take over the running of services, an argument which is littered with problems. For starters, many communities do not posses the capacity to deliver public services and neither do they want to. In areas where community ownership is not feasible then services will be lost. Research conducted by Professor John Mohan of the Third Sector Research Centre (2010) highlighted that volunteering and participation in community governance structures is more noticeable in middle class areas than in working class or poorer communities, the very communities where the cuts are biting the hardest. Meanwhile, similar research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2006) noted that a small number of people, described by the Foundation as the ‘consultative elite’, are disproportionately involved in community politics. Proponents of community ownership often overplay its democratic credentials but asset transfer means that services and assets will no longer be controlled by democratically-elected Councils, but by small groups of management committees, often unrepresentative of the wider communities they serve. The outcome is not a ‘big society’ but a village against village, and town against town mentality whereby local groups are forced to compete against each other for funding. And let’s not forget that it is the funders and not the community who ultimately call the tune. Whitfield notes how the search for funding from an increasingly conservative charity and trust sector could result in a rightward shift in the politics of community and civil society campaigning.
Margaret Thatcher might well be dead and gone but her ideas live on. In fact, worryingly, many of her ideas still have some mileage and the bad news is that they could be coming soon to a community near you.