There can be no question that 2011 has been one of the toughest years in living memory for local government. Few in the sector will mourn the passing of this year, yet as we look ahead to 2012 there are reasons to remain cheerful. Here are my five hopes – forgive my festive optimism – for local government in the year ahead.
1. Local government strikes back
While even communities minister Eric Pickles acknowledges that local government has showed “enormous leadership” in responding to the scale of cuts, 2011 has inevitably been a year of retrenchment and battening down the hatches. We have been surviving rather than flourishing.
But a handful of local authorities have begun to emerge with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose – whether it’s Westminster’s civic contract, Islington’s commission on fairness, Newham’s resilience agenda or Oldham’s ethical framework.
My wish is that next year sees more authorities using the tools of localism, whether that is promoting local growth and economic development, finding new ways of delivering local public services, or handing more power to communities. The government has said it’s over to you so 2012 should be the year of ambition, strong political leadership and the wrestling of self-determination away from Whitehall.
2. Government learns to value local government and its workforce
It is hard for local authorities and their employees not to feel pretty beaten down. Much reform has felt like a challenge to local democratic representation and the leadership role of local government, whether by directly elected police commissioners or the attempt to push through local referenda. The opposition has been quick to point out how much of the Localism Act has actually been centralising.
In terms of the workforce, criticism of public sector pay and pensions, the lambasting of “non-jobs” or back office functions, a pay freeze and ongoing staff culls have all served to damage morale, and leave people feeling insecure and undervalued. The government would do well to remember that it needs a strong, confident and motivated local workforce for localism to be successful and so should use 2012 to rebuild relations.
3. People power becomes a reality
One of the best aspects of the localism agenda is its determination to hand power to citizens and communities. Councils of all political persuasions are recognising the power of social networks and the capacity in our communities to make great things happen, whether it’s the big society pilots or co-operative councils. I hope 2012 is the year local government recognises that it works best when it works with people, not doing things to them.
4. The re-emergence of local partnership
After years of effort and money going into supporting and developing local partnerships, the danger now is that budget cuts and job insecurity have encouraged retrenchment and protectionism around pooling money or tackling the tendency to work in silos.
Disappointment over the failure of Total Place lingers, yet the emphasis on community budget as well as the problem families agenda may yet see some of the lessons of closer partnership working applied in 2012. The challenge is how we spread that lesson across local public services.
5. Mayoral debates reinvigorate local democracy
Whether or not you believe in the mayoral agenda, it is happening. Next May, 11 of our major cities will have a referendum on whether they want to be run by a directly elected mayor. This is a key opportunity to reinvigorate public debate on local democracy, leadership and identity. I hope all councils grab this opportunity.
This article first appeared on the Guardian Local Government Network Blog on Friday 23rd December