View from inside a council

Rebecca Gwilliam on how councils are responding to the localism agenda

The first successful use of the pincer movement is recorded as being by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. Over 2200 years later, many in local government feel that they are being subjected to the same manoeuvre.

The combination of a severe financial settlement, as well as pressure from central government not to increase fees or charges to help make ends meet, means that local councils of all political make-ups are feeling the heat.

Add to that the significant reforms being introduced through the Localism Bill, the intricacies of the Big Society, the radical free schools agenda, not to mention their new duties on public health, and it would be reasonable to say that local authority Leaders and Chief Executives have a lot to be keeping them busy. Or keeping them up at night, depending on your view.

The rumblings of discontent have been widespread. In a surprising move, the Conservative Chairman of the LGA, Dame Margaret Eaton, said recently that she was “saddened” by the behaviour of some Ministers. Many local authorities have been irked by what they believe to be conflicting advice from the Secretary of State and his ministerial team. Whilst there is great encouragement for locally-led decision making – the introduction of the general power of competence, the resident’s right to challenge and to run services and the sweeping changes to the planning system at the same time – councils argue that they are on the receiving end of diktats on how many publications they can send out, how many times a week they should collect people’s bins and how much they should charge for certain services.

Is this genuine localism? Arguably not and it is becoming quite a major sticking point. During a Localism Bill Committee sitting earlier this year, several witnesses commented that the general power of competence did not go far enough and that the Bill does not give local authorities freedom to trade and charge as they see fit or at levels at which that they would be willing to be held accountable to by their local electorate.

But arguably local authorities also shouldn’t spend too much time shifting blame around. And many haven’t. For some this is an incredibly exciting time to be in local government. There is a chance for a wholesale reconsideration of what local government does and how it does it.

Opportunities for innovation exist. Major policy changes are being pushed through. For example, the government is considering repatriation of business rates. Not only would this mark a fundamental change in the relationship between authorities, local business and the rates they pay but a fundamental change in how central government believes local government should be financed. The aspiration being that local authorities will have the opportunity to become genuine catalysts for growth in the communities they serve.

Many Leaders and Chief Executives are embracing this enthusiasm for radical ideas and practice. Shared services between councils are being considered and implemented across the board. Greater Manchester is working with its ten neighbouring districts to find ways to deliver services more effectively for the taxpayer. Meanwhile three central London boroughs announced last week that they intend to save £35m a year through widespread sharing of services. Newcomer Cheshire West and Cheshire council has already come to an agreement with their neighbours in Shropshire to share the costs of fixing potholes.

One rather intriguing aspect of this shared services work is how exactly it plays out on the frontline. Local government does not speak with one voice – that is the point. Local councils may still want to be able to specify the type and level of service their residents receive. So, whilst in theory sharing services seems straightforward, in practice it could mean that, for a while, providers will be dealing with three, four or five of everything. Furthermore, slimmed down corporate structures will not be reflected with slimmed down councillor numbers.

More worryingly for the accountants will be that many of the savings that sharing services should deliver may not be realised for several years. But then again, they do have the excitement of ‘community budgets’ – the pooling of various strands of taxpayers money into a single pot in 16 areas across England – to keep them contented. Either way, the internal squabblings in central and local government over who should stump up the cash for these budgets, and what the cash should be used for, look set to continue.

However, the coalition’s focus on transparent government and public sector reform should benefit local people and local businesses alike. From now on, all councils have to publish details of any spending over £500. A handful of councils are resisting, maybe because they have a few skeletons in the closet. Or maybe because they think it should be up to them to decide whether they want to publish that information or not.

What it should mean, though, is that the trend for making more information about government contracts publicly available will continue. This should make it easier for smaller businesses or companies who haven’t previously dealt with government to enter the market. They may well be competing, or joining forces with, the mutuals and social enterprises that the coalition are keen to encourage.

Local businesses should also receive support from the recently formed local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). As yet no-one seems quite sure what will happen in London. Accusations that the announced shadow LEPs are simply re-branded regional development agency talking shops have also been thrown around. But, if they are given proper support, and a weighty private sector partner, then they may well work.

So where does the Big Society sit in all this? It was not a great encouragement to hear recently that 80 per cent of councils do not know what the Big Society is and have done nothing about it. But some, and not just those in the official Vanguard, are making a concerted effort to encourage residents and third sector organisations to come forward with ideas on things they could do, or would like to do, instead of the state. This might mean managing the green space at the end of their road, setting up a parents support group or helping an elderly neighbour cut the grass. The challenge will be to work out how to translate willingness into practice.

But the rancour more generally may continue. With council elections in many parts of the country later this year, it may also grow louder. It will be difficult to find a council who will not have to cut frontline services. Even councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham, heralded as admirably lean and innovative, are set to cut direct funding to around half their children’s centres. Everyday there seems to be further announcements of job cuts or the issuing of the infamous vulnerability notices.

This is a time of great uncertainty in local government. It is not just councils who are looking to merge. The narratives of localism, Big Society and budget reductions have increasingly blurred edges. Whilst there is also great opportunity, it may be that it is the last of these three, the need to drive the bottom line, which will be the narrative that emerges with greatest clarity.

Rebecca Gwilliam joined Portland from Westminster City Council where she worked as a policy advisor in the Leader’s Office.