The long-running power struggle between central and local government over their role and function has intensified with the imposition of neoliberalism and austerity policies. They have led to increasing centralisation of public policymaking, business-led organisations spending large sums of public money and the sham of ‘localism’.
Ines Newman’s prime objective is to try to widen the agenda from the nuts and bolts of ‘what works’ to how local government can advance social justice and improve engagement in the democratic decision-making process. She sets out an ethical framework based on the concept of basic needs, rights and social justice to provide a guide for policymakers.
The framework challenges whether policies rest on a firm ethical foundation; reinforce mutual obligations through universal provision; address rights, distributive justice and recognition and emancipation; lead to a deeper understanding of citizenship and the common good; help professionals deal with day-to-day ethical problems; and consider future generations and promote sustainability. The justification for each part of the framework is eloquently set out, with explanative sections highlighted with good practice examples.
This approach is grounded in an analysis of the effect of public expenditure cuts, commissioning and the increasing commodification of local government services. Newman concludes that outsourcing and privatisation do not deliver cost savings and higher quality services in the long term. The concepts of partnership, public value and the ‘enabling state’ are deemed inadequate to provide a secure ethical base to address power relations in the economy. However, local government has the capacity to provide an alternative approach.
Newman concludes that local participative democracy has increased, although many methods of engagement are tokenistic and misframed. There are examples of the reclaiming of local democracy, but they remain fragmented. In reality most change comes from community and voluntary organisations, trade unions and social movements challenging local authorities rather than being generated within local government.
The ethical framework is an important contribution to the reconstruction of public services and local government. The task is enormous and getting harder as the fracturing of local government services continues apace through marketisation and the mutation of privatisation. It is made harder still by the absence of radical alternative policies from Labour and the trade unions.