Upcoming local elections will see new councillors elected, new administrations forming and members taking on new portfolios. They will immediately be immersed into the frantic day to day life of a busy council, but if and when they get a chance to pause and look around them, what is the local government landscape that they will find themselves in?
Last year, in Connected Localism, we wrote that local government stands at a cross-roads: faced with a choice between reinvention and decline.
Twelve months on, while we have seen councils across the country continue to innovate in the commissioning and delivery of public services, the challenge remains as stark as ever.
The most obvious element of this is the immediate fiscal outlook. We know that local authorities are less than half way through the total spending cuts they need to make. But climbing this fiscal mountain needs to be seen in the context of the profound questions raised by longer term challenges such as an ageing population, a fluid global economy, population movement, climate change, urbanisation and technological development.
Taken together these short term fiscal pressures and long term changes present a formidable set of obstacles. By and large councils have already made most of the obvious savings and efficiencies, so there’s a growing consensus that going further means doing public services differently: thinking both about service transformation and demand reduction.
This has given rise to an important but increasingly familiar set of discussions about transformation and innovation. We all talk about things we know we need to do: such as shared services; smarter commissioning; re-organisation; sub-regional growth agendas; greater financial freedoms; City Deals and pooled budgets.
All of these things are important and they’re all things LGIU is working on with councils across the country. All of them are part of the answer to the question of where local services go next. Though, as always, there is a danger that we talk about such things so much that the talking comes to substitute for doing them.
But do any of them actually meet the real challenges we have? How will our older people be cared for when there’s a hundred times more of them? Will our children have the right skills for jobs that don’t yet exist? How do we rebuild local economies in a changing global context? How do we manage local resources? How do we do all of this whilst spending less money?
There are many great ideas being developed in and around local government but the question we must always ask ourselves is: do these ideas meet the scale of the real challenge we face? Do they even lay a foundation to meeting this scale of challenge?
I would suggest that they do not and cannot as long as we continue to think of them as ways of refining what local government currently does.
Instead, we need to think much more fundamentally not just about what a local authority does, but about what it is.
Of course that’s easy to say and hard to do, but we think it’s a conversation worth starting.
To mark the local elections we’ll be publishing a new discussion paper, Municipal Futures, comprising essays from members of the LGiU team, developing new ideas about the key attributes of a future council. We will consider local authorities as relationship builders, community curators, wealth creators and as sites of adaptive, reflective leadership.
These ideas are not offered as definitive solutions or even as confident predictions of what is going to happen, but they do attempt to describe a direction of travel and to offer a fresh, defamiliarised way of thinking about public service.
Most importantly, they’re intended to start a conversation: a conversation with you our members and with the wider local government family. A conversation about what local government is and what it might be.
We’ll be publishing a second edition in the autumn that incorporates feedback, disagreement and new ideas. We look forward to the debate.