For the first time in two years the whole local government sector is coming together for the Local Government Association (LGA) conference this week.
It feels like an important moment to take stock of where we are as a sector, of the challenges coming down the track and to try and speak with a united voice – acknowledging this has not always been easy and there exists real differences between councils we need to work through.
What does local government need to be saying?
Firstly, I hope the sector will not think it too indulgent to give itself a pat on the back. The effort councils have made through the pandemic have been truly Herculean. At LGiU we’ve seen our member councils of all sizes and in all parts of the country push themselves to the limit to serve their communities. This year’s LGA conference should be a space to recognise and celebrate that.
We need a far more nuanced understanding of what productivity in local government really means; where and how do we generate additional value? Economies of scale are a crucial way of doing that for some services, but in other areas value is added through new local partnerships or through public service transformation.
We need a devolution process that enables us to explore how this variation works in detail in different places. This requires real commitment from Government including significant civil service time.
I’ve written before in The MJ about the dangers of a rush to structure in relation to devolution. A further dimension of this is that it will always be difficult to arrive at a consensus within the sector if we focus only on the outcomes of devolution. We should though be able to achieve agreement about the sort of conversation with Government we want to underpin the devolution process.
Finally, we have to be clear sighted about local authority finances and about the potential for a very challenging autumn. Councils have very little wiggle room to cope with inflationary pressures and many will be facing millions of pounds of additional costs in year. We urgently need a sector-led discussion on how we will help local authorities cope with these pressures, but more generally we need to look at how we manage financial risk in the sector.
Waiting for councils to fall off a statutory cliff when they issue a section 114 is not good enough. And it allows Government to treat bankrupt councils as discrete, individual failures rather than as symptoms of a systemic problem. Government has made it clear it doesn’t see itself as being in the business of propping up failing councils, so what we need is a sector-led system of early warning, support and intervention. There’s a clear role for the LGA in this.
As so often, the message to Government is help us or back off and give us the tools to help ourselves.
Too often in the past local government has allowed itself to be divided and to let minor differences obscure its commonalities. I hope this year it finds a way to speak loudly and clearly on these issues and the secretary of state (rumoured to be a keen reader of The MJ) finds a way to listen.
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.