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Neil McInroy

All posts tagged: sustainble communities

Local government and social sector must be friends not foes

11 April, 2011 Posted by: -

Far too much debate around local government and big society has focussed on crude caricatures. This has distracted us from the fundamental questions around social and economic inclusion and masked the real issues facing local services and the needs of citizens. Its time to create new outcome focussed relationships. The social sector and Local Government need to be friends in this endeavour not foes.

The government inspired debate, reinforced by ministerial speeches have accused local authorities of unnecessary cutting, whereas, the voluntary and community sector (VCS) has been praised and lauded as the future of service delivery.  This has created some unease between the public and VCS sector.

Furthermore, nationally driven and at times overblown and chimeric claims for the big society, have also translated into some mistrust between these local bedfellows.

This is worrying, and local government, the VCS and advocates of the big society need to be mindful of this tension and avoid it. Some advocates of the big society will no doubt construe this as constructive disruption, and maybe even some in local government will say bring it on! However, no good will come of this tension, and I fear there will be only losers and these will be local service users, residents and communities.

Far too much debate around local public service reform and talk about big society has focussed on a crude caricatures, which has broadly portrayed local government as inefficient, self serving, lacking in innovation, slow and wasteful, whilst the VCS has been cast as creative, efficient, speedy and responsive.

This is baloney and dangerous, as it masks the real issues facing local service delivery and the needs of citizens in the future as regards ageing, increasing demand on services, how we pay for them and ongoing environmental change.

It also avoids pressing questions around local social and economic inclusion. These are the real issues we should be concerned about, and we need positive and creative relationships to overcome them. The powerful, paternal and at times overly grant dependent based relationship between local government and the VCS is changing.

This is mostly a good thing. However, as the power balance shifts, this is not a time to either criticise the VCS or for the VCS to start undermining the sovereignty and representative role of local government. However, it is the time to create commonalities and rally around new localist values, bespoke to place. 

CLES’s work on economic and place resilience, tells us that the stronger places have a good relationship between the public and social sectors. I have argued consistently about the need to maintain and develop a place stewardship role for local government. 

Part of this role is about an active and activist local state, working with the wider society of residents, community and voluntary groups. This involves a plural delivery of service, including a range of delivery options, including a greater role for the VCS in this.

However plurality is not an end in itself. For CLES, plural service delivery and the associated contracts and service relationships need to forged on the basis of delivering high levels of social, economic inclusion and environmental justice. Many advocates of the big society, and some in local government have lost sight of this.Local government must work with the VCS in ways which are not solely based on service competition, price and efficiencies.

They need to be forged on the basis of creative partnerships, networks and relationships, which have effective and progressive outcomes for service employees and citizens at their core.  Mistrust and acrimony are the enemies of this.

Local Government must ensure they retain a place stewardship role

15 March, 2011 Posted by: -

 ‘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.

Local economies in peril?

9 March, 2011 Posted by: -

Good local economic policies are never enough on their own, we also need plans and strategies.  This is not a new problem, local economic strategy and planning has been limping for a long time.Some places lost their economic and industrial raison d’etre 30 years or more ago, and despite lots of regeneration and economic effort, are still trying to find a new economic destiny. Furthermore, with the advent of economic recession, and with ongoing threats of peak oil and climate change our planning and strategy is woefully inadequate.

Some recent local economic policies are welcome.  However, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are not proven as a punchy economic planning vehicle and in many instances, are mired in capacity issues. The Regional Growth Fund is fine, but is dwarfed by the deep and rooted economic structural problems some localities face.  Recent consideration of a return to some form of 80’s enterprise zones, smacks of a lack of ideas and is old thinking for very different times.

Furthermore,even if these policies, were sufficient, we are also seeing a thinning of local economic knowledge and capacity, via the loss of personnel and resources.Local authority economic development departments and associated activity are reducing, as money is being diverted away from them, to protect frontline and statutory services.  This loss of capacity is also reducing the ability to make the vital networks and strategic links at various scales between economic, social, cultural services and policies.

How do we get a big (productive) society, if it is merely left to the understaffed LEP to forge the strategic connections between the social economy and large commercial investment? Or as a director of economic development said to me ‘where are the LEPs in matching large work programme contractors with a local understanding of demand?’

Let’s not be mistaken, there is an emerging crisis in local economic thinking, policy and strategy.  

Some may believe that local economic development is insignificant to the UK Plc economic policy as a whole, or unnecessary state meddling. Strategies and plans may also be perceived as old hat and part of a public sector bureaucracy which has got out of control.It is folly, dangerous and wrong to think this.  

To compete as a country, the constituent local parts play a vital role, and we need to do what every other country and successful locality does and strategically plan our local economies.  Even in the more economically vibrant parts of England, we need to maintain an edge and restlessly assist economic success in perpetuity, through forward thinking strategy and plans. Our international competitors are.

Of course, the absence of strategy and some scattergun policy may give some economic success and growth, but lessons from countless localities at home and abroad, tell us that it will tend to be more spatially uneven, make existing social and economic divides worse and will be transient and footloose, moving on, come the advent of cheaper labour or costs elsewhere. 

Sound economic strategies and plans and linked up development policy are not a predicated on large amounts of public resources.  For instance CLES’s work on economic resilience majors on creating new place based economic strategies which focus on the conditions for success, reducing the need for heavy interventions in the future.  This work highlights how place policy is economic policy. Who wants to invest, live or create wealth in a bad place?

Local and Central government needs to urgently start taking local economic development a lot more seriously and start thinking about new ways of delivering on it.  Disconnected policies and thin narrow strategies will not do the job.   

Big society needs to strengthen the way we already live - not undermine it

10 November, 2010 Posted by: -

For all the talk about how bad Britain is and how we need a big society not a big state, it is worth remembering that the communities and places of Britain have some great strengths.  In the rush to cut and change, we need to be careful that we do not inadvertently start undermining some of the good things about the way we live and jeopardise the resilience and strength of many local places.  

I write this having just returned from a trip to Australia.  Invited as an international guest speaker to the Melbourne Place Making Series and having then kicked off another CLES economic resilience pilot project, followed by a lecture tour with villagewell and PPS - Project for Public Places, I saw, discussed and debated many old and new places which did or did not work well.  Some places lacked things that we in Britain often just take for granted.

Economically Australia is in a much better place than the UK, buoyed by a mineral rich commodity based economy.  However, many local places suffer from low density and car dependency dominated by housing with limited local economies and social networks.  Australia and Melbourne in particular has great thinking and plans and is making strides in densifying urban communities as part of its population growth trajectories. With Aussie boldness, they know what they need to do and are doing it.  Walkable, low carbon communities with centres of local economic and social activity are the aim. However, Melbourne craves for some of the communities many of us live in here in the UK. 

A wee walk to the locally owned shop, community centre or voluntary group, a local community garden or a incidental meet with a neighbour, are things we take for granted.  However, this is the social and economic activity which is important for creating a sense of place and vital for human well being.  This is the Big British Society and we must make it even better, shield it where it is under threat, and grow it in suburbia, and those small towns and villages and inner city places where it has never existed or has been eroded.   

We must be wary of assuming that this type of living is an indubitable presence, inscribed in perpetuity in the fabric of British life.  At this juncture, this type of place and living is vulnerable to forces which ignore local economies and think the global economy is benign.  It is threatened by centralism which thinks the economy is just about UK plc and our trade links with China.  It is undermined by cuts to voluntary activity and the centres and buildings where community activity takes place.  It is weakened by local government which no longer has the resource capacity to effectively steward and manage local places. 

Many people in Britain do not enjoy living in great places.  Inequality is growing.  However, coming back to Britain has made me realise how precious (and vulnerable) some great places are and how we really need to cherish and create them for all communities. This is not some ‘good old blighty’ nostalgic trip.  This is informed by best practice in what makes great places.   For all the talk of big society, small state we need a big awareness about what we could be losing.

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