D-day for localism

John Tizard is director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships (CPSP@LGIU). This article was originally posted on the Public Finance Blog

The government’s expected decision to publish the Localism Bill on the same day that it informs local authorities of their grant allocation could be construed as a clever piece of ‘joined-up government’ or a cynical move so that as council leaders reel from the financial pain they can be told ‘you have more freedoms’.

Whichever of these descriptions is most accurate I suspect that for most local authorities, especially those with some of the greatest social and economic challenges that previously were endowed with significant special grants by New Labour, the Localism Bill will not seem like an early Christmas present. If the Bill and the settlement are both published as predicted, on Tuesday 7 December, then it will mean more ”freedom’ to spend much less money.

Specific grants will be cut from April 2011 for key services with little prospect of replacing the lost funds. Town halls will be at risk of taking the blame for local service cuts over which they had little choice. There will be none of the opportunities that Total Place offered to become the lead strategic commissioner for the wider public sector.

Other public sector partners face significant cuts to their budgets too and, in the case of the NHS, major reform and the dismantling of primary care trusts. Elected police commissioners potentially move the police further away from local government. It is ministerial promotion of a localism that is more about bypassing town and county halls than empowering them.

I could continue this list of woe and questions for local government. I won’t, but the picture is clear. However, there is some light in this gloom.

There will be some positive announcements in the Bill that should be welcomed by local authority leaders, councillors and officers including the ending of much over prescriptive performance management; fewer external inspections; less ring-fenced funding; and a new general power of competency. Community Based Budgets are to be welcomed but appear to be a pale substitute for the potential offered by Total Place.

Local authority leaders have to respond to whatever the government throws at and to them in a positive manner. With the public, local businesses and the third and community sectors facing hard choices and a difficult environment, it is the time for local government leaders to demonstrate their community leadership.

They should not wait for instruction or even permission from central government. They have to act boldly and resolutely to protect and promote the interests of their communities. This will mean making some hard and often painful decisions about what services to stop or close; which to alter fundamentally; which to charge for; which to ration; and which to deliver through partnerships or contracts with others.

It may sometimes means making the ‘least worse’ rather than the ‘best decision’. It certainly will mean persuading and influencing partners in the public and other sectors. And it will require the willingness to cede authority and resources to others.

Local authorities have to find ways to support building capacity in communities and to facilitate community activity. They have to resist trying to control or even monitor it. This will require partnerships with infrastructure bodies and community groups. It will require local ward councillors playing a ‘community organiser’ role and not a role over-focused on town or county hall or one that seeks to control or second-guess local opinion.

The government programme could so easily reduce the accountability of locally elected politicians. This has to be resisted but not at the expense of a thriving community sector and empowered citizens.

Even if this is difficult for sorting the 2011/12 budget it would be sensible to start to strategically plan and act for the longer term. It is imperative to attempt, as far as is possible, to avoid taking short-term decisions that will prejudice and/or impede longer-term approaches. This requires having a longer-term vision and community strategy for the locality and winning shared support for these across the key agencies in the public, private, trade union, third and community sectors.

Ideally it would be good to have engaged and consulted citizens too so that there is a consensus in place – if not for the immediate budgets certainly for plans in future years.

It also requires leadership based on principles and values; and for leaders not to be tempted to put these aside for expediency.

The financial pressures should not mean that local authorities and their contractors and partners have to stop being good employers engaging staff and unions in decisions and protecting decent terms and conditions. Sadly, there may have to be some loss of jobs but again this can and should be handled in a sensitive manner consistent with best human resources practices.

There is a case for considering how workforce planning and deployment might be handled on a locality cross agency basis and not in silo institutions – these could mitigate the number of job losses and widen opportunities for public service workers.

Equally these pressures should not be an excuse for unreasonable and short-term attacks on funding and contracting with the third and community sectors. Healthy and robust third and community sectors are going to be essential for the future of civil society and the delivery of and innovation in many public services. There is some irony in the fact that many councils and their public sector partners claim to be supportive of the ‘Big Society’ whilst cutting its lifeblood.

Relations with private sector providers too must continue to mature and be commercially sound for both parties. There is no long-term benefit in forcing profit margins and prices so low that decent companies withdraw from the market and service quality and the workforce are squeezed so hard that service users in turn suffer.

The challenges ahead are not easy and should never be under-estimated. The Localism Bill may not contain everything that local government wants; it may lead to confused local accountabilities and new relationships between local government and communities; and the grant allocations will be very, very painful for many authorities but local government and its leaders have to show their resilience, their creativity and above all their leadership.

They can win much credit from their communities or they could too easily fall into the trap which government could be setting them of being seen as part of the problem not the solution. The choice is theirs to make.