Last month West Somerset District Council sent up a distress flare. They can’t make ends meet and it is only going to get worse. At the other end of the scale, the Leader of Birmingham City Council has announced £600m of cuts and declared that the changes which are coming will be ‘the end of local government as we know it’. LB Barnet’s ‘graph of doom’ demonstrates how rising social care costs will eat up their resources until there is no capacity to do anything else but social care and emptying the dustbins.
At INLOGOV we’ve been rather optimistic about the potential for some good to come out of the financial crisis. We’ve been talking about how we need to build capacity, change relationships and challenge expectations – something we’re calling a ‘new model’ for public services. We are working with some very innovative councils who are embedding radical new thinking in the way that they prioritise resources and commission services. I really believe that it will be possible for them not only to survive but to thrive in this difficult climate.
Others will not be so fortunate. They may ‘salami slice’ and inadvertently lose all their innovative, creative people and therefore their capacity to change. In some cases political and managerial leadership can’t imagine a different sort of world and so can’t act quickly enough to start building better relationships with communities, managing demand and harnessing capacity to help bridge the gap between what people need and what can be provided. This requires a new style of local government and very different, outward facing, political skills.
We are talking about many ways of mitigating the impact of reduced resources on the most vulnerable, but the one thing we don’t seem to talking about is streamlining the machinery of local government. Local government re-organisation – that is, merging smaller councils and moving to a world where shared services are the norm – could help to make the best use of limited capacity and save significant amounts of money but it is rarely discussed. Many districts and some unitaries have successful shared arrangements, with chief executives and senior management teams managing up to three councils, with evident success. Why don’t we talk about taking that further? Surely it isn’t because Mr P doesn’t like the idea. That would recommend it to many. Perhaps it seems too difficult and painful a topic to discuss. But if we don’t, then opportunities will be lost to make the changes in a positive way and not in a crisis, when distress flares have already gone up.
In Denmark, local government has re-organised itself successfully in recent years. Councils joined together voluntarily with their neighbours until they achieved the best possible combination of size and geography to deliver economies of scale and locally accessible services. Perhaps we should think about doing the same thing? If local government doesn’t take the initiative and provide its own leadership on this, no-one else will. How can we justify the inefficiencies and unnecessary overheads of two tier areas and tiny unitaries in the current financial climate – when cuts are having a real impact on the most vulnerable?
English local government is demonstrably resilient and resourceful. Can it also be clever, brave and altruistic?
Catherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.