Let’s take stock

By | August 18, 2017
Originally published: https://www.themj.co.uk/

For many in local government and the wider public sector, there is unlikely to be much time to take a break and clear one’s mind of work related issues. The pressures of austerity, Brexit uncertainty, social housing standards, social care, health inequalities, air pollution and so much more don’t conveniently take a long vacation over August.

However, it is important that local government political and executive leaders do take time out from time to time to refresh and to reflect. I hope that many will be able to do so over the next couple of months, or at other times.

Local government has experienced some massive and unprecedented challenges over the last decade and every year, these challenges have grown in their complexity and harshness. I see no evidence of any respite or that this relentless trend will not continue. Quite the reverse – in all probability, it will accelerate and the challenges will merely be amplified.

Even so, there is still a need to take time to refresh and reflect.

If I were such a leader, there would be many issues on which I might find myself pondering and mulling over, whether on the beach or in a vineyard, or at home or walking the hills, wherever I was.

So, what might they be? Probably high level rather than detailed policy or practice matters…

One: How should local government collectively make the case for local democracy based on elected councillors and mayors accountable to local citizens, and not to Whitehall; and in so doing contribute to rebuilding trust in politics, political institutions and politicians?

Two: How should local government demonstrate its value to local citizens, communities and businesses in respect of social, economic and environmental benefits, and demonstrate how local democracy contributes to this value?

Three: How should local government collectively explain to local citizens, community groups and business the impact of Government cuts to funding and policy changes; challenge the underlying political choices made by the Government; avoid apologising for consequential cuts and lack of investment as if it were at fault; and enlist local support to campaign for an end to austerity?

Four: How should my local authority be honest with the public as voters and service users? How do we stop pretending that we can ‘do more with less’; avoid serious cuts without more funding; and that ‘transformation’ and different ways of working and partnering can off-set the full impact of cuts? How can we be open about the realities of ‘rationing’ and ‘resource allocation’? And while we are at it, how can we finally cease using that dreaded, over used and far too often misused term: ‘transformation’?

Five: How should we recognise local people as ‘citizens’ and not simply consumers of our services; engage with them in a respectful and intelligent way; and have serious informed conversations about policy and resourcing decisions?

Six: How should local government develop and deploy its leadership of place role in place shaping, influencing and incentivising behaviours, and partnering with the wider public sector, the voluntary and community sector and local businesses – all to maximise community well-being? And how can all local authorities demand greater devolution of resources and powers over the wider public realm and services?

Seven: How should local government nationally and locally contribute to addressing the critical challenges facing the country such as: poverty, including child and in work poverty; inequality of educational outcomes, health and social care; climate change; Brexit; economic and social growth; and so much more?

Eight: How do I take time out to have some time to chill, relax, refresh and retain some sanity, given the enormity of the seven issues above? This schedule is by no means comprehensive. And an intellectual consideration of any or all of the issues, which I have identified will, I know, inevitably lead to more questions and the need for wider analysis. However, I do believe these are the fundamental questions, which are worth considering if local government is to respond proactively to the current national political context, and if it is to best serve local people and communities – and be accountable to them as citizens.

Local government has allowed itself to a great extent (actually, I suggest ‘too great’) – to accept the Governments’ narrative and its underlying political and economic agenda.

Local government has too often responded in managerial and technocratic ways and has seemingly forgotten that it is a form of political government. Local government is not an administrative arm of the state. It is first and foremost political and a very important part of the country’s governmental structure. That is why we use the term ‘local government’.

If we collectively do no more over the summer period than to remember that we are involved in local ‘government’ and find ways to strengthen local governance through elected councillors and mayors, then perhaps we will deserve our holiday breaks.