New ways of working for district councils

Anthony Mason

My primary school history teacher always taught that the shires of England were mapped out by Alfred the Great. For me, that story was confirmed by an illustration in my treasured Ladybird book on the great man (Alfred – not the teacher) that shows four burly Saxons knocking in a waymark post as they lay out the boundary pattern. I still have that book. I later learned that while the reality was much more complicated, it is essentially true that much of our shire county structure would be familiar to a returning Anglo Saxon – even if not much else would be.

And while our present pattern of local government boundaries isn’t quite so longstanding, the institutional structure of local government outside the cities and metropolitan areas in England has been much more stable than the landscape in health administration – which seems to change with every incoming Secretary of State. Of course, we’ve seen some reorganisation in the shire counties in the years since 1974, when the foundations of our present system were put into place, but much of rural England is still governed by two tiers of council – three if you count the parishes.

The relative stability of the system doesn’t prevent people talking about changing it. On the contrary, no gathering of local government officers or members would be complete without talk of the supposed delights or evils of unitary local government – especially in the bar later at night. Our counterparts in Wales and Scotland have gone down the unitary path some time ago; and for some, the crazy English mosaic of cities, unitaries, counties, boroughs and districts is an affront to rational workable local governance.

Eric Pickles isn’t among these. And while the great man is famous (or infamous) for many things, his mythical “pearl-handled revolver” ready for the first person to come into his office and propose the structural reorganisation of local government, must be one of his most repeated aphorisms. For once, he may be on to something. Recent work by the New Local Government Network points out that while there are savings to be had from “unitarising” two tier councils, there are costs involved as well. The report also makes a strong case that some of the claimed savings from reorganisation may already have been realised as district councils increasingly work in collaboration and share services and even management teams in some cases.

INLOGOV is now working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) to explore further the case for retaining the essence of the two tier structure after the 2015 general election. This doesn’t mean no-change: rather, it recognises that structural reorganisation of itself may offer little stimulus to change. Transformation comes from adopting new and sometimes radically different ways of working and collaborating across the public and voluntary sectors rather than worrying about tiers of councils. We’re relatively early in the project and the DCN team has just issued a “call for evidence” to districts (and indeed others) to showcase new and innovative models of working – especially where there is good evidence of positive outcomes.

So now is the opportunity for those in two tier local government to map out the case for innovation and creativity in the way they work – but still set in the 1974 institutional structures. You have until January 16th 2015 to make a submission.

Perhaps my Ladybird book (price, 2/6d) can have some currency for a little while longer?

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team

The journey to the common: what is the role of the voluntary sector?

Anna Coleman and Julia Segar

A recent publication by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) looked at how local councils are preparing for the future and suggests depressingly that “there is simply no way that local government can reach 2018 let alone 2020 while still delivering the full range and quality of services currently on offer”(p6).

Simply put, we have an ageing population, with associated increasing demand for care services and draconian cuts in council budgets. The NLGN suggest we could be facing a future of “private affluence and public squalor”. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Perhaps austerity can be a strong stimulus for innovation? How would this work I hear you ask?

They suggest a new model being discussed around the country. The idea would be to mix technology, preventative investment, integration of council services with those of the NHS and others, alongside the creation of new partnerships between local government and local populations.

The NLGN report suggests three possible ‘landscapes’ for councils of the future. Firstly, a wasteland – a world of poorly prepared councils forced to cut services dramatically. Secondly, the wild meadow – councils provide core functions and rely on spontaneous public contributions to replace dwindling services. Finally, the common – the focus moves away from the council to places where it shares responsibility jointly with communities and businesses. This latter approach is seen as optimistic and would need to build on a strong social and voluntary economy.

This idea is timely for us as about a month ago Anna chaired, and Julia attended, a briefing event in the NW of England on Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) and how (if at all) they were engaging with local voluntary organisations and local Healthwatch. Speakers at the event came from a local Healthwatch, a local overarching voluntary organisation and someone associated with Regional Voices. Speakers described their organisations and their relationships with their HWBs. They reflected on what could be done to improve these interactions to benefit all involved. So could we tap into some of these ideas for helping to build the idea of a common?

The official vision for HWBs from the Department of Health emphasised: joint local leadership between Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities; key roles for elected councillors, clinicians, and directors of public health, adults and children’s services; the enablement of greater local democratic legitimacy of commissioning decisions, and provision for opportunities for challenge, discussion, and the involvement of local representatives. However, HWBs have no formal powers, and their ability to influence others will depend upon their success in building relationships and interacting with other organisations locally. See our previous blog (Coleman 2014) for further detail on HWBs.

On paper, then, HWBs look like ideal forums for enabling the growth of both vision and action for building local commons. Speakers at the NW event, suggested that a shift in emphasis needs to take place before such a vision can begin to be realized. They argued that a tokenistic place on a HWB is of little value either to the HWB itself or to voluntary sector organisations. The voluntary sector together with Healthwatch, can provide valuable information about needs, concerns and available assets from a range of voices within a local community, with evidence varying between robust data to insightful patient stories (National Voices 2014). In Manchester alone, there are over 3000 voluntary organisations delivering a wide range of services to diverse groups. The estimated worth of the sector in 2012 was £477 million drawing on the work of over 94,000 volunteers (Dayson et al 2013). So HWBs should consider carefully who might sit on (or with) the HWB, and at what level (Board or sub-group) to represent the views of the voluntary sector and how these individuals should be chosen.

It was suggested that HWBs are missing a trick if they don’t engage effectively with local Healthwatch (who have a seat on HWBs) and voluntary organisations (who may be invited to sit on HWBs).These organisations have valuable knowledge, local intelligence and capacity at community level. The speakers indicated that very rigid structures and ways of working do not always work and that having a seat at the table does not guarantee that organisations are heeded. In order to develop new ideas and innovative solutions for complex local health and wellbeing needs, HWBs need to devote time and attention to voluntary organisations and to Healthwatch. In the current state of austerity sharing resources, skills and information is vital and good practice both locally and nationally.

This briefing event asserted the role of the voluntary sector in improving the health and wellbeing of local populations. The contributions that they could make in helping realise the landscape of the common is also clear. Step one on this path is to see, hear and listen to these organisations on HWBs.

Now read:

Anna and Julia’s article Joining it up? Health and Wellbeing Boards in English Local Governance: Evidence from Clinical Commissioning Groups and Shadow Health and Wellbeing Boards is published in Local Government Studies.


Anna Coleman is a Research Fellow in the HIPPO team (Health policy, politics and organisation groups), part of the Institute for Population Studies at the University of Manchester. HiPPO also constitutes, jointly with researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Kent, the Department of Health Policy Research Unit in Commissioning and the Healthcare System (PRUComm). PRUComm provides evidence to the Department of Health to inform the development of policy on all aspects of health-related commissioning.

Julia Segar

Julia Segar is a qualitative researcher in the Centre for Primary Care at the University of Manchester. Her previous projects were concerned with telehealthcare and with changes in the healthcare system. Julia part of the Health, Policy, Politics and Organisation (HiPPO) research group within the Centre.

Disclaimer: The research for referenced paper is funded by the Department of Health. The views expressed are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Department of Health.

Achieving better outcomes for the troubled family of local government

In this debate, Simon Parker (NLGN), Catherine Staite (INLOGOV) and Tony Bovaird (INLOGOV) agree that the current state of UK local government is unsustainable – but see different routes to rescuing a sustainable future.

Simon Parker

The UK is currently renegotiating its social contract. You could be forgiven for not having noticed. After all, our national politicians don’t really want to talk about it. But at the local level this debate is impossible to avoid: councils will either have to invent the next generation of government or find themselves one nostril above the waterline.

So far, so consensual. The big challenge lies in whether and how a positive kind of change might happen, and this is perhaps where recent work on the future of local government differs most strikingly. The more hopeful scenarios in INLOGOV’s recent report with Grant Thornton (2020 Vision: Exploring finance and policy future for English local government) rely heavily on changes from Westminster. They ask for a major recalibration of the central/local relationship as the only way to preserve local public services.

This is a risky strategy. It is far from clear that any government in 2015 is really prepared to take the kind of radical action that would be necessary to put local services on a sustainable footing.

How would a new localist settlement reach the political agenda? Do we really believe the English question is a powerful-enough driver, especially when the agenda has been shunted into either the watery promise of a constitutional convention or English votes for English laws?

Isn’t more incremental muddle still the likeliest outcome? It would have been interesting to see INLOGOV’s report puzzle this one through in more detail.

This is not a counsel of despair. My own recent work is optimistic about the potential for a combination of incremental national change combined with rapidly accelerated local innovation to drive the creation of a new way of doing local government. I don’t pretend this will happen evenly across the country. Innovation never does, especially in a society where resources and opportunity are so unequally distributed.

But we only need a few authorities to make the breakthrough to a new mode of operating so they can show others the way. Waiting for the centre is far riskier.

Simon Parker is director of NLGN. He started his career in journalism and has since worked in management consultancy, lobbying and research, most recently as a fellow at the Institute for Government. Simon has published widely on public service reform in the UK and internationally.

Tony Bovaird

The 2020 Vision report suggests that only ‘disruptive innovation’ can save the English local government system. However, it also gives plenty of evidence that neither central government nor most local authorities are likely to be keen on disruptive innovation in practice – and some local authorities wishing to espouse it may turn out to be no good at it. The report also stresses (p.32) that ‘any new system is likely to fail if it is imposed upon a local government sector which does not agree with its broad outline’.

So disruptive change is needed, is likely to be resisted and cannot successfully be imposed externally. This is a bleak picture. However, there appears to me to be one get-out available – giving real ‘localists’ their head.

The whole point of local government is that it should be locally different, so that it can be locally appropriate. ‘Locally appropriate’ carries a price, of course – it means that locally appropriate resources need to be available, in order that locally appropriate outcomes are achieved. This is the question that has to be solved in order that we have ‘locally different’ local government. Because we DON’T have ‘locally different, locally appropriate’ local government, it is no surprise that the public doesn’t know much about local government, nor care much, nor protest at the current evisceration of councils.

So, let’s design a pathway to ‘disruptive innovation’ that does not rely on policy wonks in Whitehall. Let’s give to local authorities wishing to be really ‘localist’ the right to a local tax (perhaps they should be allowed to choose local income tax, local sales tax or local mansion tax?). And let’s give them the right to pool their budgets with other local public service agencies, to share data with any other local public service agency and to use their budgets to take compulsory short-term leases (at low rents) on any properties (housing or commercial) in their area which have been empty for more than a year.

In this way, the full power of local resources (not just local council budgets) would become available to local government.

And how should these ‘really localist’ local authorities be chosen? Well, not by Whitehall, for sure. Nor by any central mechanism (such as the LGA nominating some of its members). No, let residents decide – any local authority should be allowed to go down this route if it gets support in a local referendum.

tony-bovaird-Cropped-110x146Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV.  He worked in the UK Civil Service and several universities before moving to the University of Birmingham in 2006.  He recently led the UK contribution to an EU project on user and community co-production of public services in five European countries, and is currently directing a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on using ‘nudge’ techniques to influence individual service co-producers to participate in community co-production.

Catherine Staite

We have a settlement which is the most centralised in the world. There are two sides to the balance of power between central and local government and two things have to change – local government needs to take back some powers, including over local taxation, but central government also needs to let go.

My heart lies with local government but my head observes that it has not yet made a compelling case for devolution – from the risk averse perspectives of Whitehall and central government. So what are the factors which would encourage and enable Whitehall to let go?

The first one must be demonstrable competence. Local government can make a good case that they are pretty good at what they do. Of course, bad things do happen and sometimes lessons aren’t learned, resulting in serial failures. These instances get into the news because they are so rare. All major failures involve other agencies but local government often ends up holding the blame instead of getting recognition for what it is very good at – holding the ring in a complex system of public services.

Sadly, the effective financial management, reliable service delivery and inspired leadership of place, which characterise the majority of local authorities, doesn’t make the news. You just don’t see ‘residents reasonably happy’ as a news headline but perhaps more public recognition by central government of local government’s competence would help to strengthen mutual trust.

The second one would be a coherent, agreed approach on the shape of local government in the future, but we are a long way from that. The competitive habits of some county councils – arguing that county unitaries are the only way forward for two-tier areas – have generated more heat than light as well as flying in the face of the evidence success of a number of long running collaborative arrangements between districts.

The process of agreeing the boundaries and then creating the 2009 unitaries was fraught, in several areas, with the worst sort of behaviour but Combined Authorities have now begun to demonstrate just what can be achieved when old rivalries are buried and everyone is focusing on the future not the past. This suggests that collaborative, rather than competitive approaches will deliver a brighter future for local government. That would be better for everyone, as counties seem to forget that, in a change to unitary status, they would also be abolished. In the elections following the creation of the 2009 unitaries, former district members did better than former county councillors.

The third useful thing would be democratic re-engagement. Of course, it is hard for members to engage with their residents when the residents can see quite clearly that most important things, like how much money the council has, are decided a long way away in Whitehall. That would change if we had some devolution but, in the meantime, there are a lot of things which could be done now. The profiles of elected members in terms of age, ethnicity and gender don’t match the communities they serve. This is the result of two significant failures, that of political parties to invest in the recruitment and development of excellent and diverse candidates and that of many members to adapt to the modern world. A lot of complex and challenging questions remain unanswered, including what level of allowances would enable someone who has not already retired on a good pension to become a member.

Members often resist becoming involved in development activities and using new technology, but unless they have the skills to become more strategic and make better use of their time, they’ll be presiding over the councils which are sliding from ‘a nostril above the water’ to being completely submerged.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She 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.