Localism and Austerity – One year on

Hilary Benn MP speaking at LGiU's Localism and Austerity summit

In these challenging times I had not expected ‘optimism’ to emerge as the main theme of our Localism and Austerity Summit yesterday.

A year ago we brought people together to discuss the emerging new environment for local government and local public services.  The mood then was one of apprehension amid a fog of uncertainty – how deep would the funding cuts be, how would the government’s reforms to welfare, health, and education to name a few areas, shape up and impact the work of local councils.

A year on, with the policy and financial framework much clearer, we wanted to take stock and look ahead.   Our summit involved local government representatives, businesses, voluntary and charitable organisations, think tanks, the media, civil servants, MPs and Ministers.

Ben Page kick started the discussions with his always provocative insight and energy.  He reminded us of the contradictory views that we, the British people, reserve the right to express.

We like localism but we don’t like the postcode lottery.  We want more say, but we also want the politicians we elect to just get on with the job. We like community action, but fewer of us are volunteering these days.

Ben told us that people in local government are more optimistic than those working in other parts of the public sector.  I put this to the test by asking the summit participants if they were optimistic or pessimistic.  The overwhelming response was optimism.

Clive Betts MP, who Chairs the CLG Select Committee burst the bubble for a moment, highlighting the ways in which centralism still prevails across much of Whitehall.  The work programme was just one example of more centralism he said.  There were dissenting voices from those at the summit who are involved in delivering the work programme.  Keith Faulkner, Chair of Working Links, said that partnership working between the contractors and local government was vital.

Lucille Thirlby, Deputy Head of Local Government at UNISON brought a work force perspective to the discussion, pointing out that ‘localism’ meant more local pay bargaining and many councils renegotiating terms and conditions, in some cases by dismissing staff and re-employing them on new contracts.  The changes in local government would be more effective if staff are respected and involved in making them, Lucille said.

Jamie Cowen, from Your Square Mile and Alison Seabrooke from the Community Development Foundation, gave input on the changing relationship between citizens and the state through new community initiatives.

Voluntary sector voices at the summit raised concerns about councils cutting grants over the past year, and about some of the difficulties they have experienced when engaging with councils.  These issues were explored further in a session led by Community Matters and later in a session with Ben Lucas, Matthew Taylor, Peter Wanless and Jonathan Carr West (Jonathan will blog on this next week).

The summit agreed that to meet people’s changing expectations of public services, and to meet new demands – such as demographic change, people will need to expect less of the state and more of themselves.  I’ll ask Jonathan to Blog some further reflections on this part of our debate.

We heard from a strong trio of council Leaders – Paul Watson from Sunderland, Sean Brennan from Sutton and David Burbage from the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead about there experience of the past year, and plans looking ahead.

All agreed with the Mike Burton from the MJ that salami slicing budgets was not the way forward, and many councils are more fundamentally looking at what they do and how they do it.  There were different points of emphasis from the council Leader but common themes – savings and efficiencies that don’t effect the front line, better use of technology, continued investment in prevention, new commissioning arrangements, and more emphasis on community involvement and community action.

The capacity of those working in and leading local government was a concern for some speakers during the Summit.  Andrew Warren, of Vertex and the CBI, had an interesting take on this which struck a chord, telling the Summit that we must “put our best people on the biggest opportunity not the biggest problem”.

The changing role of local government in health was identified by all as an opportunity, but one where there is a need to share practice.  Ann Reeder, from Frontline, lead a very useful session on this, with contributions from service users and local government representatives on how the new Health and Wellbeing Boards are shaping up.  Cllr Ann John, the Leader of Brent Council, overviewed how the Board has been set up in Brent, bringing together all the key partners.

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Our two keynote speakers were Hilary Benn MP and Andrew Stunell MP.  I was really pleased that Hilary gave his first public speech as the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government at our event.

Hilary’s theme was the role of local authorities in supporting economic growth, which he placed in a wider critique of the government’s economic policies.  Hilary took a few swipes at Eric Pickles, such as the centralist push to tell councils how often to collect the bins, and what Hilary argued was the unfairness of the funding cuts. The Local Government Chronicles take on his speech can be found here.

Hilary also hit on a running theme of the Summit when he called for Community Budgets to be given more support and impetus from Whitehall.  Hilary was optimistic too, because he said “throughout its history local government has been an ocean of innovation” and he praised the way councils are responding to the current challenges.

Hilary made it clear though that there are limits to Labour’s localism when he said: “The Whitehall machine is naturally centralising, and we have to recognise that when things go wrong locally – the failure to protect a child, for example – there is very powerful pressure on ministers to do something. And we accept that there is a case for central oversight and the inspection regime that goes with it”.

Coupled with his regret about the demise of the Audit Commission, this sounded like a clear dividing line with the coalition over how far to set councils free.

Closing the conference, the government Minister, Andrew Stunell, put forward a different view, in which risk taking is essential for the kind of innovation that is needed in local government.  In contrast to Benn’s joke about the Fabian rallying cry “what do we want? – change – when do we want it? – in the fullness of time”, Andrew emphasised the urgent need for radical change.  He spoke very positively about community budgets, telling the Summit that there would be neighbourhood budgets pilots, as well as whole area pilots.

As the event came to a close I was struck by the pragmatism of the conversation.  Gramsci was mentioned more than once during the day, and it brought to my mind his line: I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”.

Thanks to everyone who came along.  Please feel free to comment if you disagree with my take on the day or want to add to it.