Local Government beyond the fragments

Recently this blog hosted an article urging local government to set out a positive and compelling vision that will guide the sector through an ever changing environment. There can be no doubt that local government is facing an unprecedented set of challenges, having to respond to increased levels of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. Yet current developments in public policy seem to actually remove the ability of local government to respond effectively to these challenges. Indeed the moves towards radical public service reform wrapped up within the discourse of ‘Building the Big Society’ seem to sit most comfortably within the conception of a residual local authority acting primarily as commissioners rather than deliverers of local public services.

This approach risks the continued hollowing out of local capacity from local government with complex strategic issues reduced to a disparate set of contracts. It is always interesting to hear about local authorities like Enfield who reject this fate and are instead determined to redefine their role, establishing clear plans for service delivery. Last week Enfield Council hosted a conference which sought to consider what the role of the co-ordinating council should be in a landscape where services are becoming increasingly fragmented. In an article prior to the conference Enfield’s Council leader Doug Taylor makes the highly salient point that common services such as street cleansing can only be provided within a single area wide framework. Just imagine different waste vans competing to collect rubbish from the same street? He opened the conference by emphasising the importance of a strategic co-ordinating role for local government and this was very much the theme for the rest of the day.

Setting out the current opposition thinking

Caroline Flint (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) pitched her address well by emphasising that the breadth of services that local government provides as well as its unique democratic mandate means it is well placed to be a place shaper as well as a service provider. The Shadow Minister then went on to outline the three pressing challenges that the sector needs to address;

  • Restoring the public finances in a way that is fair and supports jobs and growth
  • Improving public services, making them fairer and more efficient
  • Reversing the trend of disengagement from the political process and civil society

When seeking to predict future opposition thinking around the future of local government, it is important to understand that market based orthodoxies have very much become the prevailing public policy norm regardless of which party is in power. The real test of opposition thinking is likely to come when the Shadow Local Government team set out with clarity how they will ensure that the capacity, knowledge and expertise to intervene in local communities is both retained and enhanced.

Should the role of the local authority be as a co-ordinator of services and provider of last resort?

It is clear that if the result of government policy is to increasingly fragment service provision, then local government will have to carve out a vastly different role for itself. There are however radically different and competing views on what the future role for local authorities should be. Too often this debate has been driven by a comfortable acceptance of orthodoxies such as markets, competition and choice rather than seeking a strong values framework within which to make decisions and drawing upon evidence of what has actually been shown to work. The conference clearly set out two quite distinct visions for the future, which could be summarised as collaboration vs competition.

The standout speech of the day was definitely the one given by the Chief Executive of Family Action who put across a compelling case for greater collaboration between the public and voluntary sectors, pressing home the point that local government is key to the size, vibrancy and quality of the voluntary sector. There have been many commitments from Government ministers to put the voluntary sector at the heart of public service reform, opening up new opportunities for them to deliver public services as part of the Big Society. Yet what came through very strongly was that yes there does need to be much more of a level playing field between sectors; but between the private sector and the voluntary sector, where there are often vast disparities in the length of contracts that are awarded to deliver public services. This would seem to be contradicted by recent soundings from Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, implying that the Government will not scale back plans to use for profit providers in public services in an attempt to boost charities and social enterprises.

Really vital issues were raised about what the co-ordinating council means for democracy. Who will be accountable as service delivery gets more fragmented? Service deliverers or commissioners?

In light of some of these issues that were raised around democracy and accountability, it was great to hear the speaker make the positive case for local government and urge the sector to reclaim some of its ground as a deliverer of services. Equally, the narrative that is often propagated amongst certain elements of the media that the public sector is inefficient and creativity can only come out of the private sector must be challenged.

An altogether different vision for the future of local government was articulated by other members of the panel who sought to emphasise the importance of choice and competition in public service delivery. Clearly there is a belief amongst certain stakeholders that more competition will generate the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary to redesign services. This narrative should be challenged because real innovation must come from those closest to the frontline rather than a top down, one size fits all approach to redesigning services that has been proven not to work. 

What role for the co-ordinating council?

No local government event would be complete without Tony Travers, Director of the Greater London Group at LSE who closed the event by giving his views on what the future landscape in local government might look like. Emphasising that whilst fragmentation of service provision is likely; all the basic units of the state will still be in place. The overall message from the conference as a whole was that there is a real necessity for an institution with the specific accountability that is derived from the ballot box and which has the capacity to shape an area.

The conference itself outlined a really interesting vision for the future of local government styled around the idea of the ‘co-ordinating council’. Only the local authority can join up services and shape the local area, only the local authority can advocate across the whole of the local area with one single voice and only the local authority can distribute services and spending fairly. This isn’t an arrogant out of touch vision that says that the local authority is irreplaceable; but one that draws upon a deep sense of responsibility and straightforward accountability to local people and local communities.

This represents a clear and compelling vision for the future of local government. Yet some of the potential problems with the co-ordinating council became much more apparent after listening to Tony Travers’ closing address. There are unresolved contradictions between increased fragmentation of service provision and the logic of place shaping and local democracy. The conference was very much focused around how to respond to a more fragmented service landscape yet, it seems to me that the challenges that local government faces are so big that there needs to be much more focus on avoiding this service fragmentation in the first place. In light of this, I came away with two key questions that must be answered about the co-ordinating council before it can be considered to be a workable alternative model to what the Government are driving forward;

Is there a need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to shape the wider local place is retained?

What are the implications for democracy and local accountability if service provision becomes increasingly fragmented?

Written by Adele Reynolds

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