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Lessons from the LGA: Change Makers or Managed Decline? Time to decide.

A week on from the Local Government Association Conference 2023, I have taken some time to reflect on the state of the sector and what is means for the year ahead. Spoiler, my view is that things are going to be tough, unless Local Government sorts itself out.

From the moment I arrived on the sunny south coast, there was an underlying theme in the conversations I had with Leaders and Chief Executives – a theme that no one in their position would voluntarily sign up to but subscribers they are nonetheless. Local Government is grappling, after almost 15 years in retreat, with the realisation that its current job, its purpose in this political arena, its raison d’etre, is to manage the decline of its communities and its services. Or put differently, to put a brave face on systemic failure.

This is unquestionably a result of deep funding cuts. A lack of long-term local government finance reform, a constant battle with uncertainty and a dive into the unknown with commercial investments that councils would never have dreamed of engaging with half a century ago, has led us to a point where the sector looks and sounds exhausted.

Who can blame them? The same faces, making the same arguments but is anyone actually listening? One Council Leader told me that he is currently spending 82% of his annual budget on adults and children’s social care, meaning there is less than 20% left to fill in the potholes, provide the youth services and build the homes people desperately need. This would amaze the public in this Leader’s community. For the most part, residents very rarely bring up issues of fostering, SEND or care homes on the doorstep with Councillors. It is much more about potholes, housing developments and anti-social behaviour. Yet local government finance is being ripped apart by social services, predominantly in adult social care and at the LGA conference, there wasn’t a Health and Social Care Minister in sight.

In fact, where were NHS England? Where was the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? The very people tasked with funding and reforming the services are being badly let down by a lack of representation at the top table of the British government, because the people who are accountable for social care, are nowhere to be seen at the biggest local government event of the year. It would be like Councils being asked to pay for the running of prisons but never having a conversation with the Secretary of State for Justice. If the funding structures are going to change, the right people need to be in the room, and at present they are not.

What is also obvious to me is that when times are tough and the finances dictate that the quality of services are invariably going to have to decline, something dangerous tends to happen. Councils retreat. They become islands in the middle of a sea of disgruntled residents and businesses. Councils wrongly believe that this mode of ‘playing it safe’ washes with the electorate. It doesn’t. It looks weak and ultimately services decline faster than they would if your council was on the front foot and proactive.

When the Council does come to shore with some good news, it is frequently perceived as disingenuous and tone deaf to the reality of the real world problems people are having.

I look at my old stomping ground. A place that is aching for change but where decline (or failure) is being managed and presided over with very little in the way of honesty or recognition.

Just this week the flagship anchor tenant of a stalling regeneration scheme, Empire Cinemas, has announced it will no longer open a new site in Basildon. A white elephant sits in the heart of a town that is dying, going nowhere and lacking the leadership to make any meaningful change. The Council’s response? To claim things are on the up because a technical university is coming to the borough. Tone deaf and out of touch. The public want a regenerated shopping and leisure experience. It is symbolic of a council with no real strategy or vision for what its role in the community is any more.

They’re not alone. The question local government isn’t close to answering as far as I could see last week, is what is the plan? Is local government just going to accept its new reality; managing decline and making excuses for failure? Or is it going to get to work on redefining itself for the next 15 years?

Senator Elizabeth Warren once said in a Democratic Presidential primary debate that, “I don’t know why someone goes to all the trouble to run for office just so they can tell us what they can’t do and what we shouldn’t fight for.” Councillors and Officers would do well to remember this. The excuses, as valid as they may be, will be seen as just that; excuses. Your job as elected politicians and council leadership teams is to figure out a way through the excuses, balancing risk and reward, but ultimately adopting, and never forfeiting your central role, as community change makers.

There are exceptions, of course. Anyone engaging with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, with Sunderland City Councillor or with Telford will Attest. Now more than ever the idea of being a change maker should be ringing true. We are into a general election year. Unless something drastic happens, Labour will control tens more Councils after May 2024 and they will likely form the next Government by the end of the 2024 calendar year. Local Government needs to define what it will ask for from a government sympathetic to its own Council Leaders and the impact austerity has had on communities.

What role does it really want to play in public health, social care, technology and placemaking? None of these answers are obvious to me and we are months, rather than years away from an election where the NHS’ requests for cash will be honoured and then some, but where Councils could get left even further behind.

There are clearly some Chief Executives and Leaders who think very deeply about this. They are the more strategic leaders who understand the direction of travel that is needed to reform local government and to redefine its purpose for the next decade. In the new Chair of the LGA, Cllr Shaun Davies, for example, there is a real chance that Local Government will be much more forensic in how it goes about taking on the government and restructuring the relationship. There are others who are evidently in their own bubbles, unaware of how precarious and above all, disheartening the situation is.

Local Government needs to get off the canvass, get some answers and fight for a future that goes beyond managing decline. And it has 12 months to do it.

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