The Unbearable Lightness of Wellbeing

Some research tells you what you think you already know, but is still worthwhile for the lessons you learn from it. One example is INLOGOV’s recent evaluation for CLG of local government’s use of the powers of wellbeing.

These powers, enshrined in the Local Government Act of 2000, gave local authorities the power to act in support of the economic, social or environmental wellbeing of their locality. When the Act was being discussed, this was presented as a way of enabling local government to make real progress on sustainable development.

At the time they were introduced – and even in retrospect – it seemed like an exciting development. In effect, it seemed to mean that every council was empowered to do pretty much everything it would want to do. In the absence of a constitutional settlement, this was the next best thing – a power that made vires anything not forbidden in law, after an age of being prevented from acting creatively by a fear of acting ultra vires. This was before we began referring to ‘placeshaping’ at every turn, but ‘community leadership’ was much discussed.

And yet, and yet … as we all knew, and as the recent research reveals, the powers have been little used. There are many lessons to learn from this.

For one thing, I think it tells us that if the green shoots don’t show soon, then they’re going to take a very long time to come through. Around 2002, I remember writing for eg magazine that progress was slow but remained optimistic. This may have been misplaced.

Most significantly, though, it tells us how decades of over-centralisation have not only embedded certain behaviours but also stymied creativity. Give local authorities a duty and it will be followed through: specific responsibilities given to certain staff; it will be factored into individuals’ performance management; and organisational and departmental targets will be set. A power is so, so different, because it is a way of getting something done, not an obligation. If not used straightaway, then it is unlikely to even be a point of reference, so not even on the menu of options for officers and members.

Notwithstanding the many lessons, the powers are still in place and are still real. At a risk of repeating myself many years on, now is the time to dust them off and use them to the full.