Towards the end of last year, I spent some time travelling around the country meeting council leaders and chief executives to find out about new approaches in an age of massive demographic change.
In the next few months, working jointly with Age UK, I will be publishing a review of these conversations. We will be exploring issues such as the changing nature of local partnerships, the impact of new legislation, revising inspection, assessment, guidance and duties, as well as how councils are meeting funding pressure
I wanted to gain insights and stimulate thinking – theirs and mine – about the current challenges and opportunities for local government.
We know that councils are facing unprecedented funding reductions, and as they look ahead, cost pressures and demands are rising. As democratically elected community leaders, councillors must lead in developing a local vision that involves new ways of working, effective partnerships, and engaged communities.
There is much talk of how councils are doing this through different approaches, from the ‘commissioning council’ to the ‘co-operative council’, or even the ‘e-bay council’. In this review we will look behind headline language, to understand the potential for different models and approaches to service delivery, and what the role of the council in the community will mean in practice.
What is clear is that we are at a formative stage in what will be a fundamental period of change in the role and relationship between citizens and the local state. Some councils expressed a view that councils need to address the culture of dependency on public services.
One council leader talked about the need to prepare people for “the changing relationship with public services”. Councils from across the political spectrum talked about taking a pragmatic approach to the future. One leader said “we don’t do ideology”, another said “we do things pragmatically, rather than grand visions!” Other council members mentioned the value of strong leadership.
All councils seem to recognise that the role of the council as a service provider, ranging from social care to transport and community facilities, such as libraries, will be reduced in the future. For some councils this is a source of regret, caused by financial pressures. One leader told me that “the funding cuts from central government are pushing us down a particular road”.
Other councillors may see service reductions as a positive thing, like the leader who said “this is a unique opportunity to break it [local provision] down and build it back up again”.
The speed and nature of the changing role was articulated in different ways. Some councils still talk about services from the perspective of a provider of services, while the majority are now thinking much more about becoming a facilitator or enabler. One leader said: “in the long term we don’t expect to have direct services, just some social workers to do assessments and commissioning.”
Another leader put it like this: “there is a ‘core’ that we are going to deliver, and we will hold the ring on all the commissioned services”. Another council described it as providing “part of the support people want, but not seeing ourselves as the total solution”.
While another said “councils have responsibility to ‘arrange’ services for all”. One council went further still saying “there will be no resemblance between what services looked like in 2007 and in 2014”.
I have queried the impact of ‘localism’ on the ground and how this could manifestly change local services and local engagement with citizens. Leaders acknowledged the current variations between local authorities in the type and nature of local services, and in areas such as charging. They agree that the variations are likely to become wider and more controversial.
Leaders welcomed ‘localism’ but one commented “it is frustrating to be told I’ve got the freedom to do something, then be told I’ve got no money to do it”. Another felt it was important that government learned to “let go and let local government make mistakes”.