What we’re actually about: a response to David Walker

David Walker wrote an interesting piece on the Guardian local government network blog yesterday looking at what local government think tanks (including LGiU) and academics predict about the future of local government. Overall, he thinks, we’re all a little too pessimistic and a little too seduced by big ideas.

“Think tanks are prone to exaggerate: they tend to big things up in order to get noticed. They are attracted by transformational models…”

I’d like to think that’s not entirely fair, though it’s true that it is, or ought to be, part of our job to provoke and to push the boundaries of current thinking. Having said that, I’m not sure that Walker’s emphasis on futurology really captures what I think we’re about.

We don’t want to predict the future, we want to shape it. Or rather we want to work with partners in and beyond local government to help them shape it.

That’s why we try to make sure that all our research and best practice work is based in and speaks to the real experience of people trying to shape and deliver services in communities across the countries.

Walker thinks we hedge our bets by making the future conditional on a fundamental change in how councils get the money “Until local government wins its financial freedom it will not truly be free.”

Well, fair cop, we did say that and we stand by it. We do think local government needs and deserves greater financial autonomy. But that doesn’t mean we think that nothing can improve without this.

Councils across the country are operating under tight constraints, financial and political, but we’re also seeing fantastic examples of innovation and improvement.

Sutton is doing great work around social care

Kent is building exciting relationships with with academies and providing space for free schools

Liverpool is leading on the Work Programme and how it functions locally

Derbyshire is doing exploratory work around elected Police Commissioners

– and the tri-council team of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster are experimenting with collaboration and the merging services. (Please feel free to add further examples in the comments below).

The government’s localism agenda presents both hurdles and opportunities, but in a final analysis its success will not be driven by Westminster or by Whitehall but by how it is implemented in local authorities across the country.

There are challenges ahead and the most important and intractable of these are driven not  by government programmes or even by our current financial problems, but by major long term changes to our society, demography and economy. To cope with these demands local government will continue, as it has to, to reshape politics, recast the relationship between citizen and state and re-engage communities in the democratic process. That’s not a prediction: it’s work in progress