England & Wales

Wakefield: “We need to bring in business, the private and the third sector”


Councillor Keith Wakefield, Leader of Leeds City Council, is chair of the recently-established Commission for the Future of Local Government. As part of our local leaders series, he talks here about why the commission has been set up. 

Cllr Keith Wakefield, Leader, Leeds City Council

The scale of the economic challenge confronting us was confirmed recently with the publication of figures which showed unemployment rising to its highest level for 17 years.

Young people and the north of England have been particularly hard hit with youth unemployment exceeding 1 million for the first time and here in Yorkshire unemployment rose by more than 50,000 in just three months.

This is an issue of great concern to us and what we’re doing in Leeds to address it offers some insight into what the new commission is all about.

It emphasises the important role councils have in supporting economic growth and job creation. With fewer resources at our disposal we have to be more creative and work more closely with our partners in the voluntary and private sector to provide opportunities for local people to get into work. Here in Leeds we have launched an apprenticeship challenge encouraging businesses to take on more young people as apprentices.

Our chief executive Tom Riordan and I have been appealing to the private sector to take on a more direct role in taking on apprentices and young people not in education or training.  In the old days we used to do all this ourselves- we had a massive training department running apprenticeships, getting our younger generation into jobs.  These days, however, due mainly to the pressures of cuts to our budgets, we simply have a skeleton staff offering advice.  However that shouldn’t stop us showing civic leadership on what is one of the biggest issues facing our city.

Councillor Wakefield at the leadership challenge event from Leeds City Council on Vimeo.

Around the country there’s been plenty of debate over the past year about new ways for councils to work, how we can become more like EasyJet, or John Lewis or some other successful example from the business world.

And it’s true that in the light of current legislation and financial pressures local government can no longer look at itself in the same way.  Certainly we can no longer consider the role of councils as operating what is essentially a post-war welfare local state.

But I believe all the talk about copying clever corporate methodologies is missing the point.  It’s not addressing what local authorities should be about.  We need to understand what public service is and how we return that principle to our citizens.

We’re not big multi-national cash-rich companies.  While we can learn from successful business models and it is essential to keep our corporate house in order, our driving force is not the bottom line.

I’ve taken great interest in the discussions over whether we should use the Co-operative model, the John Lewis model or become an “Easy Council” that hives off all our services to the private sector and simply commissions them.

But that’s simply looking at structures.  What I’m interested in is values.  To me that is embodied in civic spirit.  And civic spirit and the willingness to put public service or public interest before private concerns is the backbone of a good society.

This can demonstrated in many ways, from the great public-spirited philanthropists like Sir Titus Salt who built Saltaire to ensure his workers had good living standards to more recent examples like John Egan.

No doubt you are familiar with the former but you probably haven’t heard of John.  To me he’s a marvellous example of the public service ethos.  He recently retired after 40 years with Leeds City Council and never missed a day.  He was head gardener at Woodhouse Moor and was so committed to the park and the community that local people successfully nominated him for an MBE.

What does civic enterprise mean?  I don’t believe it’s about re-aligning how organisations are set up, tinkering with their structures to encourage new ways of working.  It’s about how we tap into that John Egan spirit, that sense of wanting to do something for your community.  He might have been paid to work for the community, but his commitment and dedication to giving his absolute best went way beyond what was required by his job.

So how do we take this forward?  It has to be something we do not as a council but as a community, a city, a country.  We look at ways of bringing in business, the private sector, the third sector.  In other words it’s about unleashing the potential everyone has, irrespective of whether they work in some high-powered private sector set-up or whether they have a much more direct people-focused community role.

It’s a contract between the public, the private and the voluntary sectors.  Local government can show leadership in tackling the big issues in the city, as we are doing with youth unemployment.

We need a new way forward which encompasses for everyone the values and leadership of true civic service, where democratically-elected local leadership continues to have a pivotal role.

The commission is exploring as we move further into the 21st century what the future of local government looks like when facing extreme challenges to its finance.

Our membership reflects a broad range of thinkers and doers from all sectors of society who we hope will offer real insight and innovative ideas.  People like Sally-Anne Greenfield from the Leeds Community Foundation, an expert in persuading the public and private sectors to work together for the good of the community.  Or Rashik Parmar, IBM’s chief technology officer for North East Europe- his international status and achievements make him an incredibly powerful role model for young people.

I’m not going to name-check everyone on our commission as I know they would prefer the focus to be on what we’re about rather than who they are, but suffice to say we are well-represented at a very high level by some of the country’s most high-profile people in terms of getting things done.  They’re giving their time, thoughts and efforts in the interests of helping create a new, dynamic model for local government that is community-focused and involves everyone with an interest in making their area be the best it can be.

We’re currently laying the foundations for the work of the commission by agreeing terms of reference to ensure we create an environment where the best ideas can flourish and work.

We will face challenges as local authority providers in the face of pressures to move more towards outsourcing and the marketisation of public services.  The push towards localism and decentralisation throws many more challenges into the melting pot.   It is up to us to foster  leadership and partnership to get the best deal for our towns and cities in this new era.

We can use inspiration from the past from the great historical entrepreneurs and benefactors like Sir Titus Salt- but we also need the John Egans to help us move forward as a whole city.

We’re making no secret of our ambition for Leeds to be the best city in the UK and in doing that we want to bring everyone else with us.  We hope that by driving our future forward in real community partnership it can set the standard for local service delivery.

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