This past week I spend a productive few days at the Local Government Association’s 2013 annual conference in Manchester. It was great to discuss the issues facing councils with friends old and new. Passion and innovation were on display in spades thanks to a strong presence from the LGA Improvement Board, NESTA, Public-i, MySociety and many others.
Some of the best sessions for me included an extraordinarily frank speech by Lord Heseltine, insights into NHS re-organisation from Lord Victor Adebowale and a good overview of the financial challenges ahead from Professor Tony Travers. Most, but not all, of these and much more are online through the conference webcast.
Also at the conference saw the formation of the Key Cities group, of which Brighton & Hove is a founder member. This grouping of major urban areas will prove to be a major voice in lobbying central government, especially as many are in the bidding process for City Deals. This work along with associated sessions hosted by the Centre for Cities were hugely positive for shared understanding and learning. It’s important to note that this group is resolutely aiming to be supportive of the LGA and remain within the association, in contrast to some of the noises made by the group of 8 Core Cities.
But by far the most important outcome from the conference was the launch of the LGA’s powerful ‘Rewiring Public Services’ campaign and the associated reports that back it up. This campaign was produced following extensive engagement across the public sector and with support from all four political groups on the LGA (Conservative, Labour, LibDem and Independent – which includes Greens). If ever there was a time for solidarity amongst councils, this is it, which is why I strongly encourage all councils to remain in the LGA despite the pressure from some to save on the annual fee.
The campaign is superbly put together, well designed and with a clear set of asks. In essence the campaign first shows that through financial modelling that we cannot continue as we are, that the funding shortfall will hit £14.4 billion by the end of this decade. Given this and that the ‘big three’ parties in Westminster all accept current spending plans, the campaign then makes a clear bid for a sustainable alternative. This alternative includes financial independence for councils, enshrining a constitutional right for local government to exist, simplification of the relationship with central government and lasting resolutions to the key challenges, such as social care.
I was delighted to be invited to speak at the opening plenary responding to the campaign’s launch along with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, Graham Allen MP and some fellow council leaders. The mood at that session epitomised the whole conference: Defiant, positive and united in championing local government as the best way to lead solutions for local needs.
Local Government Minister Eric Pickles was dismissive of the whole thing when he spoke to the conference a day later. But this was hardly unexpected. He is but one voice in the political sphere, there are many others to be persuaded.
In one sense, as work by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has shown, the Rewiring Public Services campaign’s asks are eminently reasonable and deliverable. Indeed they are only asking for what local government in the rest of the developed world already has – freedom. But given how long England has struggled under centralism, the cross-party consensus on campaigning for these changes is quite remarkable. That extraordinary consensus now has to be maintained and pushed upwards from councillors and officers to MPs and civil servants.
Local government’s future is in genuine crisis. If now is not the time for fundamental change, then when will it ever be? This is a once in a generation opportunity to achieve a sustainable foundation for local government. Everyone who cares about local services needs to set aside party allegiances, as the LGA leadership have, and lobby to achieve the change we desperately need. I certainly will.