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Local government is not a part time job

01 May 2019 Author: Richard Blyth

As we approach the local government elections again, I’d like to share one or two thoughts on what I learnt at a recent meeting of town and city mayors in Europe.

The key point is that local government leadership in many countries is a full time professional vocation.

I was invited to contribute to the grandly-titled “5th European Congress of Local Governments” in Kraków in April. It lived up to its billing – the modern congress centre was packed for two days. 

Richard Blyth In Krakow

Richard Blyth and other delegates at the session "How to Change a City for the Better"

“European” was technically accurate but the majority of delegates were from Polish local authorities, and I for one found it a refreshing change from many congresses where everything is done in English. A healthy reminder of how many other people have to manage using headphones.

I was struck by the sheer energy and competence and professionalism of many of the mayors from towns all round Poland, and also many from adjoining countries such as Ukraine. (Russian was one of the conference official languages.)

It did make me ponder what would be different in England. I think the key point is that local government leadership in many countries is a full-time professional vocation. Although these men and women were elected, they regarded their jobs as their main concern. I think English local government suffers from being a part time job.

Another thing which struck me was the value of long term leadership. Time after time cities said “it helps our mayor has been in office for 13 / 19 / 25 years”. Given that urban planning issues require long term solutions, this can only be a good thing.

Again, if it is a full-time job it is much easier to keep it going for a long time. One mayor from Silesia said “I must be doing something right last year I was returned with 70%.” If you give local government real responsibility then you get real accountability.

If local government is empowered, then it will get on with addressing issues of actual concern to people.

This brings me to the issue of accountability. Frequently mayors would come to the podium saying these are my priorities for my city: climate change; attracting young graduates; providing affordable housing. I never heard anyone say “my priorities are to prevent housing and to promote road transport”.

The point here is, again, if local government is empowered, then it will get on with addressing issues of actual concern to people. I think our debate in England about whether councils are “allowed” by central government to have bin collections once a fortnight or to cut down street trees would seem absolutely astonishing to participants of this congress.

Not everything in the garden is rosy. The closing debate was all about “decentralization: is it dead?”. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party wants to rein in local government – often a characteristic of right wing parties around the world.

One thing that is certain is that a successful country definitely needs a constitutional structure which makes the roles of different levels of government clear and not open to change following the inclination of the government of the day.

This matters to planning because cities and localities need to be able to make long-term decisions without having the rug pulled from under them.

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

Head of Policy, Practice and Research, RTPI - @RichardBlyth7