In this thought-provoking read, Cllr Baggy Shanker, Leader of Derby City Council, reflects on the deterioration of central and local government relationships over the last five years and asks, what has happened to the trust in local government? In the midst of unprecedented pressures, he argues the financial and time-draining nature of central government checkpoints only adds to, not eases, the pressure.
Having been elected in May as the Leader of Derby City Council and taking control of Labour for the first time in five years – the last few months have been a steep learning curve for me and my cabinet. Things have really changed since we were last in administration, and I have been immediately struck by what feels to me to be a real deterioration in the relationship between local and central government.
I remember a time when local government was respected and trusted to be the champion of its place and worked in ‘partnership’ with central government to improve the lives of our citizens. What I have seen recently feels very different and nowhere is this more evident than in the way regeneration funding is passported to local areas.
Officers from across our council appear to be tied up in bidding to a plethora of different government departments for different initiatives with different amounts of money attached to largely national government objectives – just to try to secure some financial support to deliver our ambition for Derby. All of these ‘bidding competitions’ pit council against council with no regard for the relative issues or challenges. They also favour those councils with the resources or capacity to employ bid writers or who have honed their skills in writing what the government wants to hear. Each of the different funding agreements has varying timescales, outputs and monitoring requirements – leading to significant energy being re-directed towards ‘feeding the government department’ at the cost of joining up funds to make sensible decisions on behalf of our city.
There seems to be no effective understanding of the value of local government knowing the unique qualities of its place and thus being best placed to make strategic decisions on which projects best support its growth and development. One example that comes from our city centre regeneration perspective involves four different funding pots – all of which interrelate to support making our city more vibrant and successful but that are not joined up.
- Transforming Cities funding is supporting more public transport and active travel options across our city.
- Future High Streets and Shared Prosperity funds are separately supporting projects to animate the public realm and repurpose key buildings to drive vibrancy.
- And Levelling Up is bringing in resources to separately support the transformation of key derelict buildings in the heart of the city.
What would the individual resources spent on preparing funding bids alongside the required monitoring and renegotiation processes add up to if calculated – and how could that time be repurposed to actually support delivery?
And all of this at a time when the financial challenges faced by councils have never been greater – unprecedented pressures include:
- A broken care market;
- Spiralling costs for energy;
- Materials and labour caused by increased inflation;
- The consequences of the cost of living crisis in reducing discretionary income and causing significant increases in demand for services from our most vulnerable citizens.
All of this is on top of sustained reductions in our core funds from central government over the last 13 years.
At such a time, surely tying up our scarce resources in jumping through uncoordinated and disconnected central government hoops is a waste of precious energy and capacity, which could be better directed to supporting our communities and improving our places for all our citizens.
I never thought being Leader of a council in our current context would be a walk in the park, but even I am astounded by how we appear to be compounding our difficulties through the creation of self-inflicted complexity around the allocation of funds to what is – at the end of the day – the local bit of our national public services.