University of Birmingham Expert asks: Is it time for us all to take some individual responsibility in order to relieve Local Authority Finances?

Written by  Professor John Bryson 

Our councils are in crisis. Yesterday the Public Accounts Committee warned the debt mountain at UK councils has reached staggering levels, posing a risk to local services and an “extreme and long-lasting effect” if more councils go bust. The comments come as town hall leaders have started to reveal stark draft budgets for the coming financial year.

Major cuts are being planned at ThurrockWoking and Nottingham City Councils – all of which have effectively gone bust over the last two years, at least in part, due to failed commercial investments. It’s easy to feel powerless when faced with such a bleak outlook, but is there a way we as residents can remove some of the pressures on UK Local Authority finances via our contributions to community building?

The UK is a representative rather than a participatory democracy. The UK’s version of representative democracy implies that all residents expect that national and local government will provide all the public services that are required. There is no expectation that UK residents should co-create, co-innovate, or even co-deliver public services. And yet this has not always been the case for the UK, and it is not the case in other European countries.

Germany

In Germany, by law every homeowner is required to clean and clear the pavement in front of their home. There is also a general expectation that residents will assist in ensuring that public spaces are kept clean. In the UK, this responsibility rests with local authorities. In Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland fire protection is predominantly undertaken by volunteer fire departments. Only 100 of Germany’s 2,076 cities have full-time employed firefighters. Germany’s volunteer firefighters highlight the importance of providing voluntary service as a core contribution to community and place-based building. It is time for the UK to discuss the role residents could play in community-building.

Resident Intervention

Currently, the expectation is that local authorities are responsible for place-building, and yet there is an affordability issue combined with residents being marginalised, and even infantilized, in place-building processes. In November 2023, the case of a women in her 90s who went to visit a friend and tripped and fell on North Park Avenue, Norwich, was covered in the national media. The council was asked to come and clear dense weeds growing on the pavement and which had become a trip hazard, but no one came to clear the weeds. There is context here, in that some local authorities have stopped using weed killer and/or reduced expenditure on cleaning pavements. In Germany this build-up of weeds could not have happened.

A different type of resident intervention occurred in the North Norfolk coastal village of Stiffkey. In February 2022, the National Trust removed a five-metre long amateur footbridge without consultation on the grounds that it was unsafe and argued that replacing the bridge would require planning permission and would cost £250,000. The delay in replacing this structure, led to residents replacing the bridge themselves. The Trust then removed this ‘unsafe’ and illegal structure, and then what has become known as The Stiffkey Fairy Bridge was reinstated by local fairies. The Trust was not happy.

Local Fairies or State Intervention

The case of the Stiffkey bridge highlights some of the madness that sits at the centre of the provision of UK public services. There is no need for an expensive and highly engineered structure to replace an artisan designed and constructed bridge. Replacing such a bridge with an engineered bridge reflects the destruction of an historic structure that was designed to be sensitive to place. The Trust would argue that the bridge needs to be engineered and professionally built as any other structure would be a health and safety hazard and insurance risk. This is, of course, nonsense as there are many such bridges dotted across Norfolk’s salt marches and all would have to be replaced with engineered structures. The key point, however, is should residents be permitted to develop local patches that are applied to the places they live in, or should residents by reliant on the state and charities to provide all public services?

 

About the author

Professor John Bryson is Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, Department of Strategy and International Business, Birmingham Business School at University of Birmingham.