Vicky Sargent’s Blog Watch 8: local government; localism
Last week, UK local authority chief executives and senior managers were meeting at their main annual conference, the Solace Summit.
So, as the media obsessed over national government ministers’ troubles with policemen and ticket inspectors, local government was busy with important stuff. With the UK's 433 councils delivering around 80% of public services, what they do has a major impact on people's lives.
Councils are currently dealing with spending cuts of up to 30% imposed in the last Spending Review, so it was no surprise to read in a blog post from Jonathan Flowers, a former local government officer now a senior manager at outsourcing giant Capita, that:
‘Opening plenaries from Martin Reeves, Coventry [chief executive]…..and Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA painted a picture of organisations grappling with an extraordinary amount of change, and having to deploy new approaches, and new partnerships, in order to do that.’
It was more of a surprise to find Flowers’ account pretty upbeat, and also to learn that Richard Vize, the former editor of the Local Government Chronicle, detected a ‘palpable optimism’ around what council managers were doing ‘to redefine the role of councils for an austere, digital and networked world.’
Vize’s blog in The Guardian suggests that council managers now share a belief that direct service provision by local councils must give way to approaches that harness the energy and assets of local people.
‘Behaviour has to change. There needs to be a shared vision for an area, built collectively with everyone from colleges to businesses to police commissioners. Building new homes, matching skills to jobs, encouraging sustainable energy, providing the infrastructure for growth, tackling isolation among older people – local government is crucial to everything, but it can't do anything alone.’
Alongside this, he says, councils need to ‘embrace openness and transparency and find ways to unleash the power of digital engagement.’
In a blogpost anticipating his speech to the Solace Summit, Matthew Taylor talks about the ‘greater legitimacy of local leaders and their more practical problem solving orientation’ - an idea he attributes to political theorist Benjamin Barber.
Taylor quotes other authorities who believe the nation state to be ‘too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things’, before remarking on the striking contrast between ‘the optimism of urban commentators and the pessimism of those who focus on nations and multinational institutions.’
So, perhaps our beleaguered government has got one fundamental right with its programme of ‘city deals’ that provide a raft of new freedoms, powers and tools to help cities go for growth.
So far, deals have been signed with eight core city-regions (Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Bristol and the West of England, Greater Manchester, Leeds City Region, Liverpool City Region, Nottingham, Newcastle and Sheffield City Region) with more to follow.
The deals, and what they are intended to deliver, are described by Lorna Gibbons, an economic development officer at the Borough of Poole, in a Guardian blogpost pitched at cities aspiring to win a deal in the next wave. Most first wave deals, she says, include items from a basic menu including apprenticeships, local asset management, investment funds and job creation.
Each deal also ‘includes at least one major commitment specific to the city, which generally involves leveraging private sector funding. Many have included tax increment financing and community infrastructure levies and there is also a focus on investment and trade.’
But what of places where city deals do not apply?
David Marlow, blogging in the magazine Regeneration and Renewal, writes about ‘whole area community budgets’ currently being piloted in Cheshire West and Chester, Essex, Greater Manchester, and the West London tri-borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster.
As he points out, community budgets - that could become widely available over the next 2-3 years - contain elements of Total Place, the local and multi-area budget agreements piloted by Labour towards the end of its administration.
However, the community budget pilots, he says, also have significant emphasis on local economic growth, and ‘the early signs from the pilots are that the “economic chapter” of community budgets could be akin to a ‘city deal’.
Like city deals, he says, the success of community budgets will depend the willingness of the government to genuinely devolve powers, freedoms, flexibilities and resources. Without genuine decentralisation, the deal/budget could become a series of projects with no ‘model of change’ to pull all them all together into a synergistic whole.
Marlow suggests that Greater Manchester might have got this right by positioning the community budget (tackling ‘failure demand’ for public services) alongside the city deal (for the economy), the combined authority (for governance and accountability), and a refreshed Greater Manchester strategy.
So much for community budgets, what about community leadership?
Writing in the RSA blog Atif Shafique describes Oldham Council’s attempts to deliver a co-operative model of local government. This involves ‘instituting a radical shift away from a model of centralised control and managerialism to a greater enabling role that empowers community leaders and citizens to take greater responsibility for their neighbourhoods’. This is closely linked to the need to reduce dependency, manage demand, redesign services, and leverage local assets to achieve better social and economic outcomes.
Leader of Oldham Council Jim McMahon, says Shafique, is clear that ‘local politicians….had in the past created a dependency culture….significant levels of grant masked the entrenched social and economic problems that existed in the borough….the reality of austerity has shown only a new form of engaged leadership can really meet the challenges facing many of the UK’s towns and cities.’
Oldham is training councillors to enable them to become more effective community leaders, identifying resources and opportunities to give communities a stronger stake in local politics. ‘How councils leverage community leadership and to what degree they help councillors play a more constructive role in their communities’ says Shafique, is vital. And it is just as important as – and closely connected to – questions about new delivery models, productivity and efficiencies, and the need to get “more with less”.
Councillors from a different side of the political fence are equally convinced that local action will make the difference. In their post published on Conservative home ahead of the party conference, the leaders of five Conservative-run London Councils argue why the Government should keep its nerve on localism.
One specific idea they float is ‘an “Employability Passport” that would guarantee every young person a job or further training, and will provide a key tool in driving the recovery from the bottom up.’ The leaders also argue for ‘a business rate discount, paid for from a reduction in the total welfare budget’ for every company that hires or trains local people.
Of course, the formalised leadership of councillors is important, but communities can also be empowered to do it for themselves. This is very much the theme of a blog by MP Rory Stewart, Chairman of the All Party Group on Local Democracy. Talking about his constituency in Cumbria, he says: ‘We have had villages not only saving local pubs, but building 22 house affordable housing schemes; communities not just building cycle paths, but working out how to connect the most remote valleys to superfast broadband; not only taking over tourist information centres but taking responsibility for planning policy.’
His plea is that the state ‘must now recognise this success; must respect the knowledge, the skill, the adaptability of living communities; and must get out of the way. Officials should recognise how little they understand about the history and context of particular local communities. The state must learn in the most generous and human sense to delegate: to trust that when local communities are given responsibility, they will treasure it and flourish.’