England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Brighton Policy Café

Photo Credit: gifrancis Flickr via Compfight cc

At LGiU we’re keen to have more – and better – conversations with our members. As part of this, we’re holding a series of short, lunchtime events (Policy Cafés) around the country. Our latest event took place in Brighton, Charlotte Maddix summarises the debate.

Our brief for this Policy Café was to explore how councils can work in partnership – with neighbouring authorities and with other sectors – to deliver economic growth, to provide strong civic leadership and tackle the funding crisis. LGiU’s Head of Projects, Lauren Lucas, kicked us off with a look at how devolution deals and combined authorities have offered one possible vehicle for collaborating with others. This was followed by a presentation from Brighton about their approach to working with partners – and a discussion on how strong working relationships are forged beyond formal structures like combined authorities.

Local government needs to speak with a unified voice

Brexit – which necessarily involves a rethink of our constitution – represents a possible opportunity for local government to seek alternative models for collaboration. But what is central government’s vision for what those models should look like? Between 2010 and 2016, the devolution agenda was interlinked with austerity and there was evidence of a strong, strategic, central intent. Post-2016, we’ve seen less certainty – and less active commitment to the Northern Powerhouse and devolution deals. Throughout this, central government has espoused the combined authority with an elected mayor as the desired model – so far.

The mayoral model has, unsurprisingly, already led to the role and focus of mayors expanding. The issues with the model have been much discussed elsewhere – voter turnout, representation and structural challenges. For more on lessons from the mayoral model, see our recently published long read on the Manchester experiment.

With Conservative Party Conference coming up, we should be looking out for hints about the future direction of the devolution agenda – particularly with regards to business rate retention and devolution. With the political landscape in flux, now is the time for local government to try and speak with a unified voice to push for better ways of doing things.

Policy initiatives come and go, but local government is here to stay

City deals gave local areas funding and some flexibility over how that funding was spent. It also created momentum for areas to move forwards with local investments and initiatives to attract money. These city deals led onto the submission of devolution bids – but a change in tack from central government meant existing agreed deals and the upcoming mayoral elections became the focus for civil servants. Then came the introduction of the industrial strategy just as devolution deals were being resubmitted. Meanwhile, the government has been floating the idea of other types of deals – sector deals, cluster deals, housing deals – further confusing the landscape.

Policy initiatives come and go, but local government is here to stay. A sense of place is fundamental to local policy making – something local government is better placed to understand. But with central government focused on fallout from the summer’s events and Brexit, it’s as hard as it’s ever been to make the voice of local government heard.

But with a shrinking civil service, minority government and an administration not philosophically wedded to political goals, it’s up to local government to act. We need to ‘light a fire in the darkness’ – where there’s an ideas vacuum, we need to create our own ideas rather than sitting on our hands and doing nothing.

Building strong local partnerships

In a time of global uncertainty, the big issues – climate change, global recession, demographic change – always come home to roost at the local level. Seismic shifts in the way the economy works, particularly when it comes to employment, are inevitable. So how do we in local government build strong and lasting relationships with our partners so we can weather these storms?

Whether or not you have a combined authority and an elected mayor, a collective vision is essential. A vision shared not just by councils – but by the third sector, by private businesses, and by local people. How can we ensure that initiatives are of value for all partners involved? How can we work together to foster local growth so that everyone benefits? How do we get the right people round the table?

Evolving local government

The business of local government and how to fund services is not a philosophical question – it’s a practical concern that councils are dealing with every day. How do we fix the funding problem? Devolution, business rates and supporting economic growth are all linked to this question. It’s essential that local government is ahead of the curve. Although resources are limited, we need to invest in innovation – but how do you find the time to make the connections and find the news of doing things that innovating requires? That’s the challenge.

At LGiU, we’re planning on running more events that help members make those connections – and we’re holding them around the country so you can save time and make local connections too. Watch out for more events in this series: https://www.lgiu.org/project/policy-cafe/