How Local Authorities Can Unlock Change Under Pressure

How Local Authorities Can Unlock Change Under Pressure

Thomas Moniz, Sigrun Clark, Shivangi Talwar, Prof Cecilia Vindrola-Padros, Sarah O’Meara

Recent years have been challenging for English local government, with councils and authorities operating under significant financial pressure charged additionally with responding to the multi-faceted shockwaves of a global pandemic. While the challenges were great – and for some authorities too great – new research commissioned by the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) shows COVID-19 provided an unexpected opportunity to accelerate innovation and pursue meaningful change.

Find our full report of local authority recovery plans in response to the pandemic here and our executive summary here.

This period saw numerous councils getting together to pool resources to save money, some further embrace going digital through initiatives like webcasting and online service provision, and others implement forward-thinking principles including 15-minute neighbourhoods. However, while the picture of agility, adaptability and collaboration which our review paints demonstrates much of local government at its best, our research also lays bare the limits of its current funding model. Despite collaboration and innovation being important lessons for the future, greater devolution and more flexible funding streams will be necessary preconditions to equip councils and authorities to respond to the next crisis to the best of their potential.

How did local authorities respond to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The pandemic served as a catalyst for local authorities seeking to accelerate their policy agendas – rather than a departure from past plans.

During the pandemic many local authorities increased support for pre-existing goals, such as reaching Net Zero, and improving economic outcomes through employment, skills and welfare services.

They also sought to capitalise on positive trends brought about by the pandemic – such as active travel, remote working, and digital connectivity – to kickstart new initiatives like ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’, improve physical environments and ramp up digitalisation and connectivity.

The policy areas covered by local authority plans are interrelated, with many policy objectives taking a co-benefit approach, involving environmental, social and economic benefits.

The plans also illustrated a shift towards more collaborative forms of working with other local authorities and with local actors – such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, Chambers of Commerce, health and social services, and the voluntary sector – to pool resources and draw on expertise. 

How did the pandemic change ways of working?

Levels of collaboration across and between local authorities have increased, leading to a ‘whole system’ approach to policy development.Councils such Broadland & South Norfolk, and East Lindsey & Boston (which neighbour one another) created shared plans and pooled resources. Boston Borough, East Lindsey and South Holland District Councils have since joined in a partnership with South Holland District to create the South & East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership.

The GLA and the London Recovery Board have become the London Partnership Board
Councils have reformed their organisational structures to bring in hybrid working, more online services and improve staff engagement with communities.North Northamptonshire council pledged to invest in its Council Chambers, to ensure meetings can be watched remotely.
Councils have focused on civic engagement and improving trust and democratic participation in institutions.Adur and Worthing plan to build on community activity that was present during the lockdown and harness the networks that emerged to co-produce platforms and connect people across different generations.

Many local authorities lacked the resources to fully fund their recovery plans, which meant that funding requests to central government was a core element of their response. In many cases, recovery plans were not fully funded and the scope of implementation was limited. This has highlighted that, despite devolution initiatives, England’s system of local governance remains a multi-level patchwork with local authorities dependant on central government for funding.

Principles for the future

Drawing on the findings of this review, we suggest three broad principles for the UK Government and local authorities to enable greater policy innovation, especially when a crisis demands swift changes in ways of working:

  1. The UK Government should devolve greater powers to local authorities, including giving them increased ability to determine how to make use of existing funding and raise additional funds to pursue their strategic local priorities.
  2. The UK Government should ensure local authorities have access to more flexible funding opportunities that are not timebound, ring-fenced or competitive, as has been the case for Levelling Up Funding.
  3. Local authorities should prioritise increasing collaborative working, including seeking input from local businesses, services, and community groups to develop their strategic plans. In particular, where a crisis situation requires swift policy change and adaptation, it is essential to include all interlocking levels of governance and neighbouring local authorities in developing a collective strategic response.

This summary draws from a new review commissioned by IPPO and undertaken by the Rapid Research Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL), based at the Department of Targeted Intervention, University College London (UCL).

This rapid review is based on the available evidence from Covid recovery plans developed by a sample of local authorities in England.

The full Review of England’s Local Authority Plans in Response to the Covid-19 pandemic can be found here, and also the team’s executive summary here.

Please contact and s.o’ for further information.