Posted by:15 March, 2011
‘You know what, I am not sure I got into local politics to just manage contracts’. This statement, uttered to me a few weeks ago by an experienced local (Conservative) councillor, goes to the nub of fears around the future of local government
Should local government and elected members just outsource all service contracts to the ‘big society’ and commercial deliverers of services and/or should it play a democratically accountable place stewardship and coordinating role? I would argue that too much of the former, fetters the latter. Some areas may be fast approaching this tipping point and we need a much deeper debate about the consequences.
The cuts have created a dynamic and head of steam which make outsourcing a strong option. Firstly, the big society and commercial delivery are perceived as more efficient. Secondly, it gets the costs isolated as part of a contract and reduces the liabilities. These factors have created a dynamic where direct service delivery responsibility is moving away from Local government.
I am not suggesting that the use of the private and social sectors in service delivery is a bad thing. Quite the reverse, some services have always been delivered by a blend of public, private and social sectors. A plurality of service delivery is a good thing. However, there is a key place stewardship role, which too much willy nilly and short term outsourcing will kill.
This place stewardship role is about the qualities and values of public service. It is the ability to ensure a sense of fairness, and equality of access to services. It is also about governance and connecting up different services in creative ways. And fundamentally, its about sovereignty and maintaining direct democratic accountability over a service.
As a resident, in inner city Manchester, I quite like the fact that I can speak to my local councillor about a range of local services, knowing that she and local cabinet colleagues are accountable for them. Even if I don’t like how the service is run, I can even make a vote for an alternative candidate and party. I have a connection, I understand the connection, as does the councillor and all my fellow residents. In contrast, how would I influence a service, if all the local council does is manage a contract, I can’t vote against the CEO or the board of a large commercial company?
Also, are we weakening the power of local government to act as key lynchpins and actors in times of stress? All places are at the vagaries of unpredictable events and ongoing environmental, economic or social shocks. When these shocks occur, the strategic place steward role of local government is to mobilise quickly, harness resources, relationships and reshape services and activity accordingly.
Furthermore, what about opportunities? A major investment opportunity or securing a major sporting or cultural event, is achieved through strategic capacity across a range of partners, drawn together by local government.
Can these fundamental stewardship roles be achieved if all or the majority of our services are outsourced and part of legally binding contractual arrangements? It could well be that outsourcing on a grand scale, weakens the stewardship and strategic role of local government. In doing this we are making our places vulnerable to adverse change, and leaving our places weakened in attempts to realise fleeting moments of opportunity.
All of this is absent from present debate, and the localism bill is silent on them. The future has to be about a strong local government which creates the conditions and ensures the health and wealth of local places, communities, businesses and residents. It can’t do this alone, but it must retain the capacity to lead and steward place.
From Neil McInroy
Neil McInroy is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies . He has recently returned from a series of visits around the world to see how economies can be boosted by action from local authorities.