As always, there’s a new-term feel to this time of year, as we spring or crawl back to our desks – depending on how successful our summer holidays were – and look forward to the year ahead, writes Jonathan Carr-West.
In the political arena, this new term is most obviously marked by party conference season. For all the main political parties this looks likely to be a somewhat fraught time. Each in their own way faces profound – possibly existential – crisis and each looks likely to be caught between Brexit strategy on the one hand and internal party management on the other. The domestic agenda is squeezed out by these powerful forces.
Local government policy is a victim of this dynamic and I’ve written before about the challenges and opportunities offered by this stasis. What does become increasingly clear, however, is the precise nature of the challenge we face. And that is to bridge the gap between two competing realities.
We have, I believe, an increasingly accurate and compelling vision for how our civic futures could look. We know that public service of the future need to be preventative, co-produced and multi-agency. We know that the public realm needs to be characterised by collaboration, civic entrepreneurship and engagement. It’s what Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak of the Brookings Institute have recently written about as New Localism, and what we, at Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) described back in 2014 as ‘a social architecture and a civic infrastructure in which local government catalyses the collaboration of citizens, communities and institutions to work together for the public good’. In addition, it has been variously labelled as connected localism, synaptic services and municipal futures.
We see elements of that future emerging in the bolstered civic confidence of the new combined authority regions: in the social innovation of Barking and Dagenham’s Every One, Every Day initiative; in the renewed interest in participatory democracy from the RSA and others; or in the civic entrepreneurialism of Blackpool investing in the Winter Gardens or Coventry’s new aquatics centre, to pick just a couple of examples.
But has this become systemic? In the same 2014 pamphlet, I argued that such innovations ‘remain the exception rather than the rule, marginal rather than central’. They remain locked in innovation ghettoes of local community action, or fashionable web start-ups. For local authorities they are too often an addition to current services rather than a replacement for them.
We have certainly seen progress since then but I think that analysis still stands. Why is this? In large part because of the second reality – a much less comfortable one, characterised by acute, existential, financial anxiety, services cut back to the statutory minimum and rapidly growing funding gaps in adult care and children’s services. These are not promising conditions under which to build a culture of civic entrepreneurship, even if we believe that such a culture is, in the long run, the solution to the sort of challenges local government currently faces.
Put simply, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement a positive pro-social agenda for councils fire-fighting massive cuts. That was a fatal flaw in the Big Society agenda back in 2010/11, and it looks likely to be a fatal flaw in the civil society strategy launched by the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport this summer.
So a new school year comes with a familiar essay question: how do we bridge the gap from where we are now to where we need to be? But, while it may be familiar, this question doesn’t receive as much attention as we might expect. There is a whole industry of think-tanks, NGOs, charities and social innovators thinking, modelling and piloting a future civic ecosystem. Meanwhile, in local government, there are countless people desperately trying to figure out how to survive the immediate crisis. Very few people are able to do both at once.
And so, we are left in a position somewhat reminiscent of the old joke about the man who when asked for directions begins: ‘you don’t start from here’. Yet here we are. Eight out of 10 council leaders and chief executives have told us and The MJ in our annual survey that local government finance is unsustainable. If the National Audit Office are right – and they nearly always are – there are over a dozen councils teetering on the brink of financial collapse.
An injection of cash from government looks highly unlikely – especially as any rescue package funding is likely to trigger an avalanche of Section 114 notices. And, indeed, there’s an argument that throwing more money at an unreformed system is an unsustainable approach. So, what is the first step?
Across the local government sector, I detect an almost fatalistic sense that something has to give, but that when it does a solution will emerge (an attitude that also seems endemic in British politics as a whole). We’ll see. But, in the meantime, at least let us be clear sighted about the real question. Not ‘where do we want local government to be?’, but ‘how do we get there from where we are now?’
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGiU. This article first appeared in The MJ.