This is a late review of how local government is faring a year into the new administration, as evidenced at this year’s Local Government Association conference and from the distance provided by a couple of weeks and a holiday. I’m aware that the Murdoch group phone hacking is almost the only story in town at present but still think it’s worthwhile documenting the current state of play in the sector.
Localism remains very much of the moment with an increasing need for more of an innovation and risk reward approach. Commentators continue to regard it as enabling early development and challenging the norm through cultural change, e.g through connected care at Turning Point.
However there are some changes. In particular, local councillors are being seen as having a stronger role in making devolution happen locally, including the reality which comes with funding. A dedicated session on councillors as entrepreneurs of communities saw a role for them in brokering local deals, problem solving and the deployment of community budgets. A further area of consideration was in voluntary sector grants, where some councils had decided to involve ward councillors in decision-making process.
Turning to community development, there was interesting discussion on the fundamental question as to whether we have citizens who contribute to public service or simply taxpayers who consume them. This was an interesting strand in a session by Seattle community activist Jim Dear. He considered that the more usual needs assessments should be accompanied by community capacity assessment, taking care to avoid those with ‘big mouths and small constituencies’. Memorably he considered that this can be done by adopting the maxim of ‘why have a meeting when you can have a party?’ which helps build links and capacity rather than underlining existing power structures.
There are important links between this approach and the development of effective front line delivery. Community engagement can be built upon as local government gets beyond signposting people around the system and into taking ownership for problems and then wherever possible engaging with communities to change them.
Further localised decision making is central to the forthcoming outcome of the Resources Review. This will be a very significant change to local government funding and it will be vital to fully understand its implications. The proposal is to allow a retention of business rates with the intention of providing local authorities with greater control arising from economic development strategies. It is thought likely to lead to government grant eventually being phased out and in the meantime reducing and being complemented by New Homes Bonus. It is intended that there will be damping of the system through ‘tariffs’ on the winners and ‘top ups’ for the potential losers, with a system of five-yearly revaluations.
There may of course be gaps in funding where regeneration schemes take businesses out of the equation for a time. Other key issues will be the start year (13/14), the relationship and ratio of Council Tax, the changing relationship with business, and the LEP, the introduction of Tax Incremental Funding as part of the process driving capital resources and infrastructue, and the fact that there has been little thought about the impact on two tier areas.
There is some concern that Local Enterprise Partnerships might assume that these are naturally ‘their’ resources, and at the most local level Parish and Town Councils and neighbourhood organisations will have their own expectations. There is also a need to consider the extent to which this is a property-based approach rather than a skills and added value based one. Will it skew areas towards ‘big shed / retail employment and away from value-adding but SME based economies? Local councils will therefore need to ensure they have a good understanding of the link between Local Development Framework implementation and future funding. This should extend to making sure we understand how accurate our NNDR estimates are, review the LDF and New Homes Bonus linkages, and assess opportunities and risks to our financial position.
Additionally it seemed to me that many councils are grappling with the potential tension between strategic management of assets across their areas and the need to balance this with highly localised potential demands for asset devolution. Accordingly, asset strategies need to set out a clear direction and criteria on which approaches seeking devolution might be considered suitable or sensible.
A number of workforce issues were at the fore, in particular pensions. Here there was a general feeling that the proposals of the Hutton review were measured and appropriate because they keep a defined benefit scheme which is linked to inflation, and that the proposed career average scheme is fairer to front line low paid staff. There is a pressing need to promote the scheme to staff so that they can properly compare it to other options and make sure they have proper provision for their futures, especially in the face of the pressures the state will face on social services finances with an aging population.
These concerns, along with the huge changes that the sector is going through make staff communication and recognition all the more important. We need fundamentally to improve the flexibility and engagement of our staff teams in partnership with the communities they themselves are part of and work out ways for them to see a future and value in their skills.
Health and social care also featured strongly, with a government focus on shared decision making with citizen/patient, focused on outcomes and devolved commissioning, preventative services and support. Health & Well Being Boards are seen as being increasingly important particularly with regard to public health and the focus on need and priority planning locally.
As has been noted in the trade press, there was an optimistic feel in the conference. But there is more to be made of local government’s position than is currently being claimed. For example, we need to have more exploration of the potential uses of the power of general competence. Ministers’ and opposition speeches were generally complimentary about local government, which is seen as being key to a localist future, even senior officials’ contributions were recognised. I was particularly struck by Greg Clark’s presentation on ‘ Localism 2.0’ which focused on financial reform, the development of community budgets and local government’s right to propose a deal to central government. This latter item is a key piece of work for the sector to grasp and take forward in the coming year. In the next post I will pick up some key points from Barry Quirk’s excellent book, Re-imagining Government which provides a great starting point for these issues and was itself launched at the conference.