Local government has often been seen as a dull backwater of the British political scene, occasionally illuminated by scandal or incompetence. But with the agenda of radical reform introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, all areas of government within and beyond Whitehall became more prominent.
At the local or sub-national level, attempts to protect the welfare state from the chill winds of these reforms were seen first in the rise of municipal socialism in the conurbations and larger cities and then in the development of an often-unholy combination of identity politics and new public management.
The Labour government has not backed off from the challenge of trying to modernise the way local government is organised and does its business. The prospect of direct elections for local mayors in the coming year suggests that, for now, the spotlight on local government will remain bright. These books all have something to say about local government, local governance and local politics.
The strength of John Stewart's book comes from his extensive experience of local government throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. This gives him numerous illustrations of its often-complex workings. With his ability to present this in an interesting and coherent format, it makes for a good read. It is all too easy for the mass of detail, the pace of change and the complexity of issues to undermine the value of books of this nature, but Stewart does not succumb to this. The book is in three main parts that look at the historical development of local government in Britain, the legislative and institutional context and, finally, at the workings of local government. His themes involve looking at the degree of uniformity and diversity in the system as a whole and at patterns of continuity and change.
His book provides a valuable point of reference on local government for both undergraduate and postgraduate students of politics, social policy and administration and policy studies and to others from further afield who need to know what the world of local government is really like.
Gerry Stoker's edited collection is aimed at a different audience. Along with a companion volume published last year, it is one of the main outputs of a major programme of research into local governance, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and directed by Stoker.
Local governance refers to the processes by which a wider range of local institutions work together in defining and pursuing local goals in the provision of services, community leadership and place promotion. This institutional focus draws into the frame of analysis bodies from the voluntary and non-statutory sectors and from the commercial world, as well as the burgeoning number of state and quasi-state bodies, including local government. The local governance research programme had six themes in its first phase and four in its second. Hence it is not surprising that the contributions to this collection range far and wide.
The 14 substantive chapters include work on a variety of theoretical perspectives such as regulation and regime theory, network analysis and rational choice. They consider the changing nature of local politics, including the growing significance of participation and the politics of inclusion. They also address issues of "race" in looking at the ways urban development corporations meet the needs of minority ethnic groups; and feminist interventions in response to domestic violence. This is a comprehensive book to be dipped into and used selectively.
Geoff Vigar and his colleagues provide an even more focused analysis on a particular aspect of local governance: the development and operation of the spatial planning system in Britain.
They also offer an institutional analysis and their work is also the product of an ESRC-funded research project. The authors chart the rediscovered significance of place and territory in British public policy in the past decades and through the detailed empirical study of housing, economic development, transport and waste management, they construct an analysis of governance and its discourses in the field of spatial planning.
Students of planning and related disciplines, especially at postgraduate level, will get most from this book, but there is much in it for those in the wider fields of policy, politics and geography, if the density of the material does not put them off.
Dilys Hill's book is more digestible but may well leave some readers feeling in need of further sustenance. Its focus is on the major urban problems of physical dereliction, economic decline and social exclusion and it combines an historical review of policy developments with chapters on the political and institutional context of urban policy and an analysis of recent regeneration initiatives funded by the single regeneration budget and the various "new deals" on offer from the government.
The more interesting material comes towards the end of the book where the "modernising agenda" is described and its scope for contributing to a more robust urban policy is reviewed. But there is no consistent analytical framework through the book and its conclusion that we must hope for a more transparent and discursive urban politics is perhaps too suggestive of the slogan "things can only get better".
Overall, Stewart has written the best textbook on local government and Hill's Urban Policy and Politics in Britain will also be useful to students pressed for time. Those with more time on their hands will enjoy the scope of Stoker's collection and get much out of the depth of material in the book by Vigar et al .
Paul Burton is lecturer in policy studies, University of Bristol.
The New Politics of British Local Governance: First edition
Editor - Gerry Stoker
ISBN - 0 333 72817 3 and 72818 1
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £49.50 and £16.99
Pages - 294