Local Government: Challenges And Opportunities In 2012
If councils thought 2011 was difficult they would find getting through 2012 much tougher but the challenges also provide local government with interesting opportunities - the author argues.
The new year messages issued by political leaders make for gloomy reading; in 2012 things will only get more difficult. In this context councils will take on new powers and be challenged to provide more services with a smaller workforce and less cash. More of the same old perhaps, but in 2012 the impact of the financial crisis will bite local government harder than before.
Austerity is a fact of life, inflation remains high, unemployment will grow. There is a likelihood the UK will reenter recession, and a risk of further violent civil unrest. Households hit by the down turn will ask more of their local council. With council funding due to reduce by 26% during the current spending review more workforce reduction, on top of 140,000 jobs already lost, is inevitable. This is an enormous budgetary and delivery challenge.
As we live longer social care provision is another great test. Despite the commitment of practitioners councils struggle to meet demands in this, their largest single area of expenditure. The social care white paper should be published in the spring, there is evidence of a growing consensus on the need for radical change. Although clearly the cost to both the public and private purse will be high.
For all these difficulties this is a period of opportunity for local government. The general power of competence in the Localism Bill at last brings some of freedoms for which councils have long called. Proposals around business rates will enable some councils to shape economic development and play their part in economic recovery.
The election Police and Crime Commissioners in November will bring the opportunity to review and remodel policing and community safety. Developing relationships between councils and commissioners will be critical if turf wars about budget and resource priorities are to be avoided.
The return to councils of responsibility for public health, one of the less controversial aspects of health care reform, will join up health and social care and lead to a wider range of patient centred preventive services. The sharing of data across agencies shows where resources can be better targeted to community needs.
It should be heartening to councils that all these policies show a willingness to devolve power to a local level. Councils must now embrace the opportunity, in turn passing these freedoms onto partners in communities and parish councils. The challenge for central government will be to allow freedom to flourish and resist the urge to guide localism too prescriptively.
How will Councils respond to these tests? There is a long record of innovation in the sector. New powers will allow councils to pursue or develop long held ambitions, innovation will continue. Financial benefits remain to be had from sharing services. Many councils now enjoy the savings of sharing back office transactional functions, more benefits can be accrued by extending sharing to encompass professional services such as legal and finance.
Appropriate use of technology has long played a part in reducing service costs. In turn reducing technology costs by pooling networks, data centres and scare technical resource should remain a high priority.
Collaboration with other providers and sectors will grow, with more services spun out to social enterprises and the voluntary sector. Whilst cultural barriers to collaboration remain the best councils recognise the necessity of remodelling the sector and are tearing down those walls.
So 2012 will not be an easy year, and perhaps the most crucial challenge is one of leadership. The local government workforce has been under pressure for sometime, job insecurity, pension changes, and pay freezes have damaged morale. Councillors and managers must energise their workforce; communicating a vision of the route through these difficult times from which local government will emerge effective, efficient, and relevant.