“It’s time to put local back at the heart of government”

Liverpool town hall. Image: Getty.

This is a crucial moment in the history of governance in the UK. In the wake of economic upheaval throughout most of the last decade, as well as the seismic impact of Brexit, political life in Britain is struggling to keep pace with events.

There are long-term challenges, too: changes in the relationship between citizens and the state; in technology and the ways we interact and communicate with one another; and in the expectations we have of institutions and leaders.

Something has to give.

With central government capacity stretched to breaking point and a lack of wherewithal in Westminster to deal with the impact of these changes, or to navigate them in local areas, a radical shift in governance is essential. Local government needs to have a bigger role in shaping the country’s future, with more power to make decisions and lead in local communities.

There is a deficit of trust in public institutions and the elites who run them: the banking crash of 2008, the MPs’ expenses scandal and a period of extended austerity in public services have all contributed to a loss of confidence that was thrown into stark relief by the EU referendum and its aftermath.

Empowering the cities and regions of England remains one of the most important issues for government to address and it needs to do it now. Yet the offer to local government so far has been limited. It has stopped short of signaling the radical changes in power and governance that are necessary.

In order to investigate this situation more fully, LGiU convened a high level network of six leaders, six chief executives and seven senior officers from councils across the country, as well as senior academics from four universities and practitioners from organisations across the public sector.

One clear message emerged: at this point of crisis, there needs to be a radical realignment of the relationship between central and local government. Brexit has perhaps made this change less likely, but it has also made it more essential. While councils have been forging ahead with innovative new ways of leading and delivering for places, central government has been preoccupied with other matters, many of which are remote from the real concerns of local communities.

That’s why we make the following recommendations:

A mayors’ sSenate: A mayors’ senate should be established, giving directly elected metro mayors this role.

In the first instance the Senate should cover the constitutional settlement surrounding Brexit, but it should also expand to cover public finances, infrastructure, service reform and government policy more generally.

This would be a first step towards representation of the English regions at the national level and ideally there would a wider pool of leaders involved in future.

A systematic review of public finance, led by local government: The crisis in funding for local government has been growing for some years, and the fall of the Finance Bill has placed a large question mark over the future of council funding.

A systematic review of local government funding should be set up immediately, and led by the very council leaders with the experience, knowledge and expertise which is lacking in Whitehall.

A new constitutional settlement: Without formal rules governing the relationship between central and local government, it is entirely reliant on trust and goodwill. But trust and goodwill is often severely lacking in the centre-local relationship.

Either that needs to be reversed, which seems unlikely in the near future, or we need a constitutional settlement to provide a framework and consistency over the roles and responsibilities of central and local government and a secure footing on which to build the future of local governance.

Devolution relaunch: The genie is out the bottle when it comes to devolution. The combined authorities have shown that building regional representation does not necessitate creating a new layer of bureaucracy.

This should be a programme of empowered regional governance and leadership to facilitate better democratic representation and greater local influence at the centre.

We have become used to a state of affairs in which roles and responsibilities are delegated from a distant and largely uninterested central government. This story has been in the making for a while – but now it is time to turn the tables and put local back at the heart of government.

Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of LGiU, the Local Government Information Unit. You can read the Beyond Devolution report here.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook