This week’s Local Government Association conference needs to think positively about how to confront the challenges that local authorities face in these challenging times
This week, the Local Government Association assembles for its annual conference in Birmingham. Council leaders, councillors and senior officers will be gathering as the financial storm clouds (and given this summer’s track record, possible meteorological storm clouds too) build up for even greater tempests.
Further discomfort and challenges await local government as the economy stagnates further into recession with the consequential economic and social consequences; as the government’s schools policy changes the local authority education role forever; as the NHS reforms are being implemented and the implications are still to be fully understood; as the failure by government to swiftly address the social care funding crisis hits home; and as the Localism Act starts to be enacted.
So in the city once dominated by Joseph Chamberlain and the strength of municipal power and its positive contribution to social and economic well-being, conference delegates should take time out to consider less their plight but rather the opportunities for local government. These opportunities may be hard to identify in the eye of the storm and amidst the uncertainties created by government policy, global and national economic conditions and changing public expectations. However, they must be identified.
It is hard to imagine given the levels of the cuts being imposed on local government, its public sector partners, and the expected cuts to come, that local government can simply smile and muddle through. Incremental change and traditional ‘salami’ slicing of budgets will be insufficient. Such short-sighted tactical responses will simply leave local authorities weaker than they need to be and will not serve communities.
Once again, the LGA has a series of opportunities to show leadership for the sector as a whole: to demonstrate that whatever the political hue, it will advocate for local government; to be prepared to challenge central government; to challenge under-performing authorities; and to challenge lethargic complacency within local government itself.
The LGA must show leadership – and encourage local council leaders and elected mayors to show leadership too.
This is the moment for local government to reassert itself as the local political voice and power within localities. This means listening to local people, local businesses, local voluntary and community groups, local public sector partners, staff and other stakeholders in order to reshape local places. It also means demonstrating local leadership and not simply following national trends or guidance, any more than it should mean avoiding hard and possibly unpopular decisions locally.
The nature and profile of local government is changing and doing so rapidly. More significantly, the political, social, economic, technological and ecological environments around it are changing even faster so local government in turn has to be ahead of others.
I urge the conference to reflect on how local government can and will strengthen its community leadership role without necessarily having any more legal powers. This has to be about political influence and brokering arrangements with and between others. A key question for the LGA, therefore, is how we can ensure that we have the necessary political capacity and competency across local authorities.
I would also expect the debate and thinking to address key issues such as: the switch from dealing with the consequences of failure to investing in prevention at a time when resources are too few to deal with the failure itself; how to decide what to do and what not to do (for there will be less resource to deliver services available); and how to create the conditions, talent and culture for innovation, experimentation and effective risk management.
Time could and perhaps should be taken to consider a new constitutional settlement based on Graham Allen’s proposals or similar; and the ‘city deal’ offer and how this can be extended to all authorities, rural and metropolitan.
There is also the need to shape a new strategic learner-focused education role for authorities. All of the above are fundamental issues if local government is to have a positive future.
However, there are many other matters that will need to be considered. Local government will need to understand and be able to collaborate with others to secure community well-being and to ensure that limited resources can be used most effectively.
Specifically this should lead to a new relationship with the local voluntary and community sector. The latter should be recognised as an alternative voice for communities and, in many cases, the builder of stronger and more inclusive communities. Local authorities must not regard the sector only as a service provider and certainly not one to simply do the bidding of local authority commissioners. The independence of a strong civil society is critical to local communities. Local government has to recognise and respect this.
Local authorities need to consider further how they can best partner other local public agencies. Both these sets of partnerships with the wider public sector, and the voluntary and community sector require local council leaders to have the confidence and nous to cede and share power and resources.
Consideration has to be given on how to re-design services and how to ensure that strategic commissioning leads to service re-design or replacement rather than to procurement. Equally, when services are procured, local authorities need to understand how to ensure that they take social value and wider policy objectives into account.
There continues to be a great interest in shared services in local government and some interesting models have been adopted including the tri-borough arrangement in London. Other authorities are wishing to use technology to allow them to form virtual shared arrangements with others, especially for transactional activity. I would expect shared services to be on the agenda this week but hopefully not seen as a ‘silver bullet’ to solve all funding problems.
The conference should have a long and hard look at the value and relevance of traditional outsourcing and partnership arrangements with the private and indeed large third sector bodies. Do these continue to offer value for money, and flexibility in a period of uncertainty and innovation? Do they enable the development and the pursuit of personalisation, choice and local neighbourhood empowerment? What is the scope for new models of working with the private sector on services, regeneration and securing capital investment for infrastructure, service redesign and social investment? What role for spin outs? Many questions – and the opportunity in Birmingham to pose and debate them.
Local authorities rely on their workforce and the workforce of their partners and providers. The conference this week should take the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to and acknowledgement of staff and their contribution. In the aftermath of the pensions agreement, there is a great opportunity to commit to new negotiations, nationally and locally, to address the consequences of redundancies and pay freezes; and above all to strengthen staff engagement across local authorities – with an expectation that partners and suppliers will adopt similar practices.
Many councils are exploring and adopting new approaches – from the ‘commissioning council’ to ‘co-operative councils’ and many other models. This is encouraging – but has to be locally determined. So, a final thought for the agenda for the coming week would be around the LGA redefining its own role as a sector leader, voice to government and support advisor to member local authorities.
The agenda is big, but then it needs to be. This conference is very important for local government and the people it represents and serves. It is vital to the national economy too.
It will be far too easy and tempting to take time in the conference hall, cafes and bars to lament the poor deal that central government is imposing. That would be a missed opportunity. Far better for the vast majority of delegates to focus on ideas and solutions to ensure that in ten years’ time there will be an effective and vibrant local government sector to meet at the annual LGA conference.