England is around halfway through significant reductions in public expenditure and heading for a ‘new normal’ at much lower levels, whilst seeing demographic and other pressures rise. Local Government is currently projected to see a £10.5bn funding drop between 2010
and 2020. Pressures on services are projected to rise by around £6bn, resulting in a £16.5bn total gap, under-resourcing services by around 30%. This average masks a wide variation – the LGA predicts that some of the poorest areas are projected only to be around 55% funded by 2020, whilst some shire districts will be 100% funded.
This shortfall is highly unlikely to be closed by efficiencies, voluntary redundancies, shared services, linking up with other parts of the public sector, outsourcing, or other changes on the supply side alone. New ways of thinking about the demand for public services are therefore needed. This challenge is political because it derives from what politicians and the media consider to be an acceptable level of taxation and the public service priorities of the national government; and it is cultural because it reflects the changing assumptions that people make about what it means to be a citizen, our overlapping roles as patients, taxpayers and citizens, and the ability of public service institutions to completely reconsider how they operate.
For ‘the gap’ is actually in the operation of society as a whole and what constitutes public service need. In looking to unlock resources to bridge the gap we should not just think of local government finance, but of the wide range of financial, logistical and human capital resources available in the public, private and civic spheres of society. That means that we cannot consider local government, or even public services in isolation, but we need to think more widely about the social contract and to look at what everyone’s contribution ought to be to the community. It’s a clear choice: personal tax to pay for services or time spent to build more resilient communities that need lower public service levels.
The big question for the future is therefore not simply about public services. In fact, there is a range of questions we need to answer about the deal between people and state. Who is really talking about it? How does it translate into personal, household, neighbourhood, city, regional or societal rights, responsibilities and realities? What are the respective (and respected) mandates of politicians at the national, regional and local level? How does all this relate to ideas of a good life in a good community in a good place? If it works at the individual level why should I engage at all? Isn’t that what politicians should be stewards of? Can we use the democratic system and the resources of the community to change the point at which publicly funded services intervene? Are we scared of having a view about what ‘good’ means, or of having a debate in a pluralist culture on what our underpinning societal values are?
Local government has a vital role to play in shaping this debate. For the responsibility for the development of a new discourse on the strengths, warp and weft of a community and its public service needs (and responsibilities) must surely be with its leaders and set within the political mandate. I consider that this mandate should logically extend to all public services and other activities that impinge on the locality.
Such a mandate also carries with it the responsibility to ensure that a community is in turn playing its part in wider society. A traditional view of the role of the politician is one of holding public services to account on behalf of the community. And yet the value of what people should be bringing through their own strengths and abilities, to benefit the common good, suggests that there is a need for politicians to engage in new ways and to develop a dialogue with the community to hold it to account too. That is the trickier dimension of the political mandate, one which is perhaps understated. It is a very tall order for the many politicians of goodwill who came into local politics to sort out bad planning decisions or because they were the only one prepared to be a communication link with the council.
These thoughts point me towards some new form of social settlement based upon ideas of community and prosperity, which is adaptive, emergent, co-produced, strength- or asset-based, and where local government is not a byword for the dead hand of bureaucracy. This cannot be a technocratic solution – it requires astute political and managerial leadership which helps to form truly meaningful communities that play their part in national life, and public services which support the development of social strengths rather than papering over the gap.
Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, largely relating to local leadership and the politics of communities and place, and is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars. Daniel was chief executive of St Albans City & District Council for 2006 to 2012 where he oversaw significant corporate improvements and budget reductions. He was Executive Director of Finance & Policy at the Local Government Association from January 2013 to March 2014, where he oversaw the LGA’s Rewiring Public Services campaign and the refinement of its public finance strategies. He is currently on sabbatical having decided to return to an operational leadership role and is pursuing personal projects, consultancy assignments and writing. He plans to return to a chief executive role in 2014.