There will be no more central government money for local government in 2012 or for the next few years. The Conservative-led Coalition has made that abundantly clear. Indeed, there is a really serious risk that as the economy fails to grow and as other pressures build on the public finances the Government could cut its grant funding further. The NHS, police and other local agencies are also facing big cuts in their funding and, like local authorities, are experiencing increasing demand for their services.
The reality is that, with less money, not everything that has been historically funded can or should be. Nye Bevan wrote in “In Place of Fear” that the “language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. This has never been more the case than today, and we know that while one can argue that the Government is cutting too much too fast, it is very unlikely that a Labour Government would be able to restore much if any of the lost funding. And progressives are likely to want to fund new initiatives and services that make a difference so have to create the financial space to enable this.
The new challenge for progressives is to build an approach to localism based on the new reality of less money. This is not about “doing more for less”. It has to be about doing different things in different ways.
This will not be easy as critical services such as Sure Start, care for the elderly and disabled people, public transport and children’s services are at risk from the current expenditure cuts and pressures. Instinctively councillors from all political parties have expected to spend money to solve immediate social, environmental and economic problems. Public expenditure can be a powerful tool for progressives, as can taxation.
But rather than devalue the role of local government in a period of less money, it becomes even more critical than before. Progressive local authorities must be even more effective community leaders and place shapers. They will wish to harness the capacity and resources within their communities to maximise social, economic and environmental well-being. This means building on the Labour Government’s “Total Place” programme and the current Government’s “Community Budgets” to enable communities to use the wider public, third, community and business sector resources to address their needs and aspirations.
The progressive localism agenda will involve greater devolution and sharing of power and resources with local communities and local voluntary groups. This will require investment in building community and voluntary sector capacity.
At the corporate level, progressives should consider pursuing alternative forms of financing including making capital assets and property work for the community more effectively – much of the public sector, including local government, is asset rich. Assets can be rationalised with consequential service benefits and cost savings as well as capital receipts for new investment and/or they can be released to fund services through partnerships with the private sector. Local authorities can draw on social investment to fund early intervention and preventative programmes to create better social outcomes and save money. They can leverage in private investment too where this will add value.
Progressives should consider strategic commissioning, that is politically led and value driven, to determine what to fund and what not to fund, as they will recognise the importance of focusing limited resources activities and interventions which add value for local people and local businesses. In determining what to pursue they should consult comprehensively with citizens, local businesses, the local voluntary and community sector and their staff.
Progressive local authorities will be those that work with their staff and trade unions – and the staff employed by their suppliers- to find solutions. A policy of unilaterally cutting terms and conditions or pay should have no place on the progressive agenda.
The progressive local authority will be ideologically neutral as to who provides the services provided that there are quality outcomes, equity and fairness as well as transparency and accountability when public money is funding service provision. The progressive authority will drive its wider political, social and economic agenda through its procurement practices demanding ethical, governance, employment, environmental and supply chain management standards from suppliers from all sectors. It will also encourage and foster social enterprises, “spin out co-operatives” as well as excellent “in-house” provision. It will enable choice and diversity for the user and the citizen and promote personalised budgets.
Local government cannot and should not seek to return to the past. It has to embrace change and not automatically reject all the Government’s reforms. Some of these including some of those taking place in education might offer the right local solution but they must be locally led and shaped, not driven from Whitehall. Local government should re-invent itself as the champion of the pupil, student and parent. The same applies across the spectrum of services that once were in the control of local government. This will be about steering rather than rowing.
Above all, local government has to champion its democratic foundations. It has to demonstrate its relevance to a population that is suffering from the dual impact of economic frailty and rising unemployment, and reduced public services. In making hard and sometimes unpalatable choices, local authority political leaders will have to explain why they are making them and be clear about the consequences. This has to be a transparent political process not some form of technocratic stealth. Progressive local politics and clear, values-driven leadership must come of age.
So while this piece aims to stimulate a debate about how progressive local government galvanises and responds to an era of no money, it does not aim to be proscriptive. Local leadership and innovation are vital at these times. And while this debate is important, there is no time to lose. Our communities will increasingly look to progressive local government to support them in these difficult times – action not words will demonstrate progressives are on their side.
John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services.
- Birmingham Labour - giving power back to the people @CllrJohnCotton sets out how Labour won last week: http://t.co/Bjy9hSKh 2012/05/11
- @IPPRNorth's Graeme Henderson on the future for local democracy post #le12 http://t.co/Bjy9hSKh 2012/05/10