The local election results in England indicate that there is no universal support for the Conservative-led government’s ambition for a smaller state and deep public expenditure cuts.
However, local authorities whatever their political composition are faced with making cuts and little, if any room, to manoeuvre around these. Local residents and their communities will experience cuts not only in their local authority services, but also the NHS, police and elsewhere.
Therefore, the public will be looking to local authorities especially Labour-led ones to find solutions; to provide shields against the worst aspects of the cuts; and for hope. It will also have similar expectations of all councillors including those in a minority on their authorities. They will expect them to work with other political groups when this makes local sense.
Labour has to use its improved position in local government and the Welsh assembly to demonstrate the Party’s values, competence, and willingness to change.
This is a great challenge for elected mayors, leaders and councillors especially for those who took control of their councils last week.
This is not the time for timidity, conservatism or defeatism. Bold action is necessary including a willingness to consider a range of options – however radical – and where necessary to cede or share power and resources to others. Councils and councillors must avoid arrogance or power for its own sake. They have to enable others to act including individuals, households and neighbourhoods – this is not the age of doing unto or assuming that public services or more expenditure are always the answers.
A council on its own cannot minimise the impact of the cuts and maximise outcomes for the community. “Total Place” under the last Government showed what could be achieved by greater co-ordination, sharing of people, assets, systems and information, and focusing on the citizen by redesigning services across agencies. The “Total Place” national programme may be no more but local authorities have to act as community leaders to make it as much a reality as they can locally.
However, such partnerships will in themselves not be enough. Councils and councillors have to forge alliances with the voluntary and community sector, community groups, and their own staff and trade unions to find sustainable solutions, decide how to deploy scarce resources, develop alternative services and to influence others. Above they must involve local people and indeed local businesses in all they do. They must communicate what they are doing – and what they are not doing – and why. They must be accountable for their actions.
Labour through its local government base has an opportunity to show that it is a learning party willing and able to be flexible; willing to empower people and communities; and to make hard choices. This is a time for new thinking, behaviours, experimentation and new ideas. It is not though the time to abandon or to dilute the Party’s values and the principles for it is those that will guide it. It will be judged on it adherence to those values and principles and by the impact of its actions.
John Tizard is Director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships