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The Renaissance route to local-authority renewal.

The Renaissance route to local-authority renewal

Libraries closed, pot-holes unfilled, bus services reduced, street lamps switched off - the list of cuts proposed by local authorities across the UK seems almost endless.

The debate surrounding the cuts has shed more heat than light. In the blue corner, a number of tabloid newspapers have depicted local government as ripe for the cutting; an army of over-paid and under-worked bureaucrats sitting in comfortable offices, counting down the days before they can draw their gold-plated, inflation-linked final-salary pensions. In the red corner, local-government employees are painted as honest toilers, doing their best to minimize the impact on the people they serve of Government support-grant cuts of 28% over the next four years (and 11% in the 2011-12 financial year alone).

Hand in hand with the spending cuts, the Government has announced plans to give local authorities more freedom of action. In the words of premier David Cameron, councils will be able to do 'anything they like so long as it is legal'. But is this simply an attempt by the coalition to pass the buck to local authorities under the guise of localism? As an editorial in local-government magazine The MJ has claimed, devolution of power to local councils makes the cuts more of a local issue, with ministers 'mere bystanders who have devolved powers and can, therefore, not be blamed for what ensues'.

In the January 2011 issue of Public Finance, Hetherington assesses the likely impact of the cuts on local government in the years ahead. He foresees slimmed-down local authorities, commissioning rather than providing services in some areas, with communities and businesses taking over libraries, youth services and maybe sections of social care. The number of direct local-authority employees, meanwhile, is likely to fall by more than 100,000 by 2015.

Hetherington concludes: 'It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of our time that, potentially, the most significant devolution of power from Whitehall to town and county hall in a political lifetime...will be accompanied by the deepest, most centrally directed cutbacks in local government that anyone can remember. Is that what localism means?'

One idea from the fifteenth century may have an important part to play in helping British local authorities to reshape the future of service provision in the twenty-first. In the May 2011 issue of The McKinsey Quarterly, Ferrari and Goethals highlight the role of paragone, the Italian for 'comparison', in helping to achieve many of the breakthroughs of Renaissance Italy. Under the system of paragone, the individual works of two artists would be placed side by side in order to 'judge them, weigh them, distinguish them and critique them'. Such comparisons motivated artists to greater feats.

The authors use the example of the young Raphael, who was commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1525 to design ten tapestries for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Knowing they would hang directly below the ceiling painted by Michelangelo, Raphael pushed himself to new heights of creative brilliance.

Ferrari and Goethals claim that paragone helped the Renaissance masters 'collectively to define a new age of art, culture and civilization - and they were never going to do this alone'. Similar teamwork and collaboration could help local authorities in the UK to overcome the greatest challenge they have faced in a generation.