Alexandra Jones, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities, sees a future of technological transformation, with some familiar budgetary pressures, where councils will have become civic entrepreneurs.
Predicting the future is notoriously tough. A hundred years ago, few would have predicted, for example, that Leeds’ growth would outstrip that of Bradford. Thirty years ago, computers were few and far between, no one had mobiles and the internet was known to a select few. The scale of the changes between now and then support Bill Gates’ observation that, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.
Given the pace of technological change, I would expect a similar scale of transformation over the next thirty years. Information will be more accessible and tailored, with devices enabling us to interact with a plethora of services and individuals in different ways. The make-up of the economy will have changed dramatically, with big implications for places across the country.
What will it mean for councils? Pressure on public spending will continue as expectations of public services grow, fuelled by experiences in the private sector, and councils need to be at the heart of responding to this.
Some aspects of councils will stay the same; democratic accountability for decision-making; the strong focus on local interests and services.
But there are likely to be fewer councils, covering wider areas, and councils will be commissioning more and delivering less, relying more on partnerships to get things done.
In a world in which cities are likely to be critical to driving economic growth, councils will need to work together to make the most of city centres and to link neighbouring areas, both urban and rural, to help economies to thrive.
Councils – near to local need, knowing their local populations and democratically accountable – will also play a vital role in integrating local services such as childcare and healthcare in a world in which customised services are likely to be expected and more cost-effective.
Ultimately councils will need to be civic entrepreneurs, becoming more enterprising and innovative in the way they support local economic growth and deliver services, with businesses and other partners taking on a more civic role, and citizens becoming more engaged in the way in which communities are run and services provided.