The schools system in England is going through the most fundamental restructuring in the post-war period. Barely a day goes by without further policy announcements and extensive media coverage. The last week alone has seen statements about the new OFSTED regime, and the undermining the value of many vocational qualifications by stating that they will not count towards league tables.

Add to that the rapid growth of the sponsor academies and support and encouragement being given to the for profit providers, and it is clear that this part of the Government’s reform agenda for public service is moving fast and penetrating deep into established structures.

Many local authorities, proud and defensive of the school system they have built up over the years and the support services they have put in place, now face the challenge of moving to a new role. They see strong schools convert to academies and weaker ones pressured to become part of sponsored academy chains, whilst educational support services are reduced as financial pressures bite. Having worked hard on strategic plans for schools capacity through the Building Schools for the Future Programme, the financial viability of some of those schools is now threatened by the rapid marketisation of the system, with new entrants such as free schools, University Technology Colleges and Studio Schools all competing for the same learners.  Schools that under-recruit will accumulate financial deficits as there are not enough young people to go round, yet  the PFI contracts remain secure and the tax payer picks up the bill!

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The education landscape that councils will face will be radically different in 2015.
1,500 academies and 24 free schools are in place already, and the possibility is that most secondary schools will be academies by the next General Election.

I have yet to meet anyone who wants to see the tide reversed to a situation where schools are effectively run by town halls. However, there is a deeper question, which the Government seems to be ignoring of what role local government – in its widest sense – can play in areas such as commissioning, extended services, ensuring fair admissions and raising standards.

Bizarrely, despite the claims by both Michael Gove and Eric Pickle to be in favour of devolving power and local accountability, the Government is seeking to hoard control at the centre.

Gove and Pickles’ clumsy reforms – they are the Laurel and Hardy of politics today – mean that the school system is increasingly centralised and dogmatic. All new schools are now funded through central seven year funding agreements and are only accountable to ministers and civil servants – not local families or elected representatives.  At the same time, new schools are exempt from the changes to the curriculum, and in the case of free schools can even hire teachers without any qualifications.

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The relationship between councils and schools is changing dramatically.

Regardless of whether they are converting to become academies, all schools are taking on more responsibility for purchasing the services they want, setting their own curriculum and retaining more of their own budget.

The Government’s policies are in danger of fragmenting the school system.  The consequences of this could be more vulnerable children slipping through the net, dodgy admissions practices going unchallenged and the growing social segregation of the school system.  There is already evidence of Academies, without Council support, getting procurement wrong and so being ripped off by unscrupulous vendors.

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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.

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The Localism Act, which is now law, represents a significant shift in the macro strategies surrounding local community development. Whilst attempting to sell the benefits of this bill, the government filled their narrative with lots of PR-friendly terms that talk of returning the local decision making power back to the local people and away from central government.

In their “Easy Guide to the Localism Bill” the government suggests that, “We are breaking down the barriers that stop councils, local charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups getting things done for themselves.” This is deliberately worded to appeal to communities who get frustrated that regulation gets in the way of their preferred plans. The government have, however, conveniently failed to explain the devastating impact their local government grant cuts has on councils providing services and supporting initiatives approved by communities. Autonomy and increased community engagement is offered by one hand whilst the money to pay for these things is taken away by the other.

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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.

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Now that the Localism Act is enshrined in law, it’s important to step back and look at the final product of almost 18 months of debate, discussion, concession and amendment, to see what the real impact will be for the neighbourhoods, towns and cities where we live.

Nowhere is this impact going to be more complex, more varied and more difficult to predict than in London, which is why Future of London are undertaking research into what the localism agenda means for our capital city.

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What does the Housing Strategy offer local government?

My colleague Steve Hilditch at Red Brick hit the nail on the head when he says of Grant Shapps’ Housing Strategy:

“Reading the strategy document is a bit like watching rolling 24 hour news; the same few points are repeated endlessly.”

The strategy is little more than a compilation of Shapps’ greatest (media) hits and makes no attempt at assessing the need for housing in Britain, which parts of the market work well and which don’t, who the different elements of the strategy should support, and makes no attempt to tie it into the rest of the government’s policies.

If we have seen the Housing Minister’s strengths in his articulacy and media savvy, his faults as a man with little vision and little ability to think or plan over the longer terms is painfully, indeed embarrassingly, evident in this document.

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Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn MP

New Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hilary Benn MP spoke exclusively to ProgLoc outside Portcullis house today (see video).

He spoke of how local government is going through a really tough time – and how the cuts are unfair and impacting disproportionately on the most deprived areas. He said Pickles talks a great deal about localism but in reality this simply means passing on responsibility for the cuts to councils.

But he also highlighted that Labour councils have to think about the future – there simply will not be the resources we have experienced in the past. We will have to use the innovation that local government has been famous for throughout its history to find new ways to do things.

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Responsibility for Public Health provision in England is moving from the NHS to Local Government – “Halleluiah” I hear some say – public health is on its way home – back to where it was located before 1974.

The move is welcomed by many public health professionals.  The changes are a move towards greater localism and this will provide an opportunity for public health to work ever closer with colleagues in housing, environment, social services etc.  It will also provide an opportunity for some public health programmes to be further tailored to local needs. Yet many of these things are already happening and have been for sometime and are broadly effective.  So while the benefits of closer working between traditional local government departments and public health teams are well established what could be the problems created by these organisational changes?

There must be concerns about budget allocations.  At a time when all public service budgets are being squeezed it may be convenient for housing departments to reduce funding for elements seen as being ”public health” so placing extra pressure on the core and ring fenced public health budget.  The same could be the case with other departments where public health related work is currently undertaken.

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