Global lessons in local government

Increasingly at LGiU we have been looking at what is happening in local government internationally. Of course one size never fits all but Janet Sillett finds common challenges, common themes and innovation that can be adapted when we cast our eyes beyond the horizon.

“One of the most critical factors underlying the ability of local government to meet the growing expectations placed on them is the quality of the architecture and operation of the intergovernmental fiscal system. Local government finance is important not only because the role and impact of local government have dramatically increased, but also because this progress has recently been confronted by daunting challenges”.

A quote that could have come from any article about UK local government. But it is from a study by Jorge Martinez-Vazquez Georgia State University in the United States.

It’s not surprising we recognise the issues – there are common themes shared across sub national government globally. Challenges from tackling isolation in rural areas to combatting climate change, from how to manage new modes of transport to how to finance devolved administrations. Of course, everywhere is different and there are no blueprints, but there are lessons to be learnt and ideas to think about from all over the world. Developing countries can illustrate innovation with few resources – there are many examples of how digital technology can transform lives without huge infrastructure costs; the US has lessons about city mayors; Finland is an example of advanced fiscal autonomy at the local level.

Our international briefings are covering increasingly diverse issues. New Zealand, for example, has had a major shift of policy recently to focus on wellbeing as a principal objective of government policy – what will having a statutory role to promote wellbeing mean for local authorities: how will it affect service delivery, how can it be measured and how can communities be effectively engaged? This agenda was familiar to England some time ago and in Scotland now but it is a more fundamental development in New Zealand.

Going back to the paper from Georgia, funding local and regional government is of concern everywhere. Many of the questions we are asking in the UK currently are being asked globally – what is the right balance between funding locally and from the centre, is devolution matched with greater fiscal powers, is equalisation compatible with local incentivisation, what should be the main sources of funding?

LGiU Scotland has found there are new ways of funding local government – our briefing on legalising cannabis in Canada highlighted a potential new tax – though not possible in the UK. And another closer to home – with Edinburgh proposing a tourist levy: locally contentious but accepted elsewhere like the Netherlands. Debates around additional local taxes in the UK are not new of course – but being able to identify where they exist in other countries and what issues they raise is surely important if we are to get beyond the rather stale debate we have had here for too long?

What other issues have we been talking about from a more global perspective? Housing, underground waste, electric vehicles, city mayors, public service performance, food deserts, child friendly elections, period poverty, managing dog fouling, managing demand for health care visits. Not to forget experience and best practice from LGiU Ireland and LGiU Scotland, and our series on local government in countries across the world.

Seeing what is happening across continents and countries can help us put what is happening here in context and in perspective. And it illustrates where local government has a crucial role in meeting the critical global challenges like climate change – how are we doing in the UK? Devolution seems to have stalled in some countries since the global crash – was that inevitable and how can it be reversed?

Of course we can’t go into detailed analysis in a briefing or blog but we can highlight where great ideas are coming from and global challenges being tackled at the local level. Subsidiarity has never been more important – here and internationally.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.

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