The government has now passed the 100 days in office mark, & thus it’s time for some early reflections. Of course in a five year term the first 100 days is a largely symbolic & possibly overworked milestone, but alongside some significant parallel developments it is a good time to consider the main features of the post-election landscape for local government.
Devolution remains the biggest, if not only, game in town for councils looking to evolve beyond the confines of prolonged demise by a thousand cuts. Many local authorities are currently publicly committed to exploring the options whilst working frantically behind the scenes to make deals, forge alliances & develop Combined Authority (or other) proposals. The government’s emphasis on local devolution tied to the elected Mayoral model is a concern for many, especially non-metropolitan areas who perceive the threat to their influence & independence. Despite this, the consensus seems to be that it’s better to be in a proposal than not. Quite how this will be resolved following the September deadline for submissions is unclear: it’s hard to believe that there won’t be areas left wholly outside of the vanguard. This then raises the danger of a set of “off the peg” models being developed centrally in attempt to please everyone, effectively pleasing no-one & nullifying the innovation and place-centric possibilities that are the foundation of devolution’s purpose. The asymmetric approach is, in my opinion, correct given how wide the “readiness” gap is for greater responsibilities & opportunities, but this does mean there will be considerable dissonance across the sector.
Lord Kerslake’s recent call for input into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for reform, decentralisation and devolution is a further step in this direction. Kerslake calls devolution a “defining issue of this parliament” with the possibility of being a “defining moment in local government history”. Importantly, he states that a core principle of the inquiry will be to engage as much as possible “from outside the corridors of Westminster”: a principle that equally applies to the need for devolution conversations across the country to escape the confines of civic offices. If this is indeed a defining moment for localisation and subsidiarity, it needs to encompass far more than local government. The success of any proposal surely depends on the centrality of communities, small businesses, major employers, universities & colleges, blue light services, the health sector, voluntary organisations and many more stakeholders in designing & delivering the new model. This will require strong leadership, collaboration & negotiation skills – which local authorities may be well equipped to provide. But this should not be a gilded version of local government reorganisation; devolution is not a silver bullet for the sector, whether or not it’s fired from a pearl-handled revolver.
Alongside these developments, November’s Spending Review looms large. The Chancellor’s open call for saving suggestions & the implication of cuts of a further 40% is the latest horror story facing Council leaders & finance teams. The stark choices of service reductions, redundancies & restructures are not fading away. However, in parallel with the possibilities of devolution, there may be cause for optimism in some areas of funding. Recent suggestions, in an excellent piece from Dan Corry, of substantial future funding for outcome focussed results offers the potential for genuine collaborative work on preventative, cross-cutting solutions. If true, this fund may be the game changer so urgently needed to focus partners across all sectors on addressing the causes of issues, rather than the siloed approaches encouraged & reinforced by service delivery sovereignty. Allied with strong, well led & inclusive devolved governance, this may be the opportunity to develop genuine system change for 21st century public services. The impact of local authority services in areas such as ill health prevention, youth services, back to work services & skills development could potentially all be recognised in a payment by results process that earmarks the savings generated for the public purse to the contributing agencies. Building on the lessons from the Troubled Families programme, this is exactly the kind of whole system, outcome focussed approach so often invoked as the ideal approach, but so frequently usurped by short term-ism.
So with 100 days gone & many developments yet to emerge, it’s fair to say the next 5 years remain a period of great uncertainty & potential difficulty for local government. Alongside the trials & insecurities, however, there remains the opportunity for local authorities to grasp a role of at the heart of their communities. This role may be considerably altered from the traditional & established view of the Council, & be more aligned with what a report from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies termed “anchor institutions”, forming part of a wider combination of organisations, groups & individuals enabling their local strategic economic & social development. To achieve any of this will take considerably longer than 100 days, but the early stages have begun & the momentum should not be squandered. “Now is the time for canny pragmatism, collaboration and locally-led innovation”, as a recent RSA blog put it: “now that the chance of devolution is finally on the table, don’t blow it”.