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Neil McInroy

All posts tagged: CLES

The local state needs to act big

24 June, 2011 Posted by: -

I recently visited some local authorities in the north-west and midlands.  These LA’s have had significant cuts and no longer received regeneration monies.  These authorities had significantly reduced staffing numbers and were in the midst of transforming their services, working more effectively with reduced resources.

They are unenthused by central government and were rejecting much of the rhetoric around ‘big society’, or a free market for public services.  However, they are not some local big state, refusing to change.  They are embracing service pluralism and new ways of working. 

These authorities were mindful that a rapid and hasty divestment and outsourcing of services would be folly and a bad use of scarce resources.  Folly because they knew there was a lack of delivery capacity within their particular communities and Voluntary and Community sector.  And a bad use of resources, because they knew that rapid outsourcing may bring short term savings but longer term costs in terms of hindering service integration, shared outcomes and benefits to be accrued through strategic direction. 

They knew that to create outcomes which made inroads into an issue such as child poverty, they needed a transformation in cross departmental and cross agency behaviours, thinking and a new plural approach to the problem.  They knew this was never going to happen by just letting out a contract to the lowest bidder.

For all the central government brouhaha around the transition from a big state to big society and the need to encourage more social and private delivery of local public services, some local authorities know what needs to be done and are grasping the nettle brought on by the cuts. 

They know, as they always have, that in many instances, they are not always the most efficient or the most cost efficient provider, but they also know private or social delivery is no silver bullet. 

They know that the demand on public services will continue to increase, but they also know someone needs to strategically oversee need and demand. 

They know they cannot afford to work in the same old way, and are therefore, embarking on radical service change.

They want to and are actively encouraging community growth and building neighbourhood and resident capacity to do more themselves, but they also know this takes time.

They know that cooperatives and mutuals and a plethora of new delivery vehicles have potential, but they are wary of seeing them as cheap options.

They know that they must empower local people, but they also know that markets can disempower.

They are sharing services, but are mindful of democratic accountability and sovereignty issues.

Above all, they are creating a new era in local public service, inspired by an shared outcome focused place leadership, filled with a belief in public values.  For them, commissioning of in-house or external activity is not just about balance sheets but about building social justice, addressing inequality, nurturing the environment and protecting the most vulnerable. 

These authorities are acting big.

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.   

Localism needs to deliver on community cohesion

8 February, 2011 Posted by: -

In his recent speech at the Munich security conference, Prime Minister David Cameron criticised multiculturalism and called for a “shared sense of national identity” and efforts to promote “that feeling of belonging in our communities that is key to achieving true cohesion”.

However, we know there are fewer funds available for support activities relating to diversity policy and equalities issues.  In recent research by CLES, we found that cuts to Community Cohesion grants will jeopardise hard won progress on the very ‘big society’ issues such as local networks, connections and relationships, which Cameron hopes to promote.  In addition, these changes will potentially undermine future economic recovery.

In two separate pieces or research work, which have taken us to Copenhagen, Blackburn and Manchester, CLES has explored ethnic diversity policy, what its future should be and, in the UK context, the impact of cuts.  The work tells us a number of key things.

Firstly, it is abundantly clear that it is a false economy to not invest in policies that promote good relationships between communities.  Failure to invest and fund this kind of policy hinders the development of social capital and entrepreneurialism and employment skills, and hampering economic development more generally.

Secondly, it is no good just relying oneconomic success.  As proven from our work in Denmark, a focus on ethnic groups gaining employment and becoming active in the economy, does not on its own, tackle the wider issues of discrimination and lack of equality faced by certain ethnic groups. 

Thirdly, this is not just a localist agenda: national policy focus and help is still required.  In the UK, the days of nationally defined policy frameworks such as the Community Cohesion agenda and the Multiculturalist model that preceded it are gone. This undoubtedly presents an opportunity for local government to develop, creative and locally specific projects which foster good community relations and respect for ethnic diversity.  However, a lack of central steer and lack of local funds may prove problematic for the areas with growing ethnic populations, who do not have a long history of migration and ethnic diversity policy making or where population change is rapid or unexpected.

Fourthly, the notion and drive for a Big Society will falter even more, unless it addresses barriers to participation.  Our work shows that it is imperative that the government works to ensure equal access to participation in the Big Society and develops appropriate processes for monitoring diversity and equality.  Neither of these points have yet been adequately addressed as part of this emerging agenda.  As its stands, many groups face multiple barriers to accessing existing services, let alone having a ‘big society’ stake in delivering them.

Our work in this area makes the case thatcentral government must allocate sufficient funds to enable local government to develop policies that are effective in harnessing the opportunities of ethnic diversity and overcoming any potential challenges that can emerge from local population change.  Failure to do so, runs the real risk that the climate of public sector efficiencies will result in a rise in community tensions.  As such, it is crucial that local authorities retain capacity and that central government provides resources where necessary for activities that promote good community relations.

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Goodbye, but should we be saying hello to Local Strategic Partnerships?

18 January, 2011 Posted by: -

 Local Strategic partnerships (LSPs)?  Remember them?  They are now increasingly irrelevant giving the demise of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the National Indicator set and are withering under the cuts. Many will disappear by April.  Good riddance some of you may say. At worst, they were unwieldy, bureaucratic, talking shops, plagued by a ‘tyranny of inclusion’, where bums on seats mattered more than actually doing anything. 

However, at best, they were transformative strategic service delivery think tanks, joining up services, breaking down departmental silos and institutional cultures and giving representation to the ‘big society’ of the voluntary and community groups.  Thus, lets not be too hasty in making LSPs the next entrant into the growing institutional waste basket of quangos and partnerships.  Maybe a reshaped LSP, perhaps as ‘Public innovation Partnerships’ focused on innovation, is the transformative vehicle for public services we need? 

We have had a load of talk about cuts, but not a lot about the post cut future.  Cuts in themselves will not be able to transform services.  At best the cuts will act as a trigger, but the timescale means they are being undertaken too swiftly for any serious transformative dialogue and action to be taking place at this stage.  

Furthermore, whilst cuts may herald change, unless we retain some cross sector partnership perspective, the cuts may trigger a whole set of potentially damaging set of unintended consequences.  Without something akin to an LSP, where is the forum for discussions about all public sector budgets (health, local government, police, housing etc), and how they need to connect up and effectively respond to the people’s needs?  How do we get discussion and a work programme for the transformation to a big society in which communities and voluntary groups work to deliver public sector services?  Top down strategic plans won’t work.  Where are we discussing public sector spend and the development of a range of delivery options via cooperatives, joint trading companies and mutuals? 

Without something like an LSP, we may well just get back door deals.  We may end up with public services which through various contractual arrangements don’t meet or add up.  Or we get a dangerous willy nilly outsourcing of services, a hollowing out of local government’s strategic capacity and a reduction not an increase, in opportunities for creativity and innovation. 

Too many people are talking the talk about innovation and creativity in public services.  However to walk the walk, we need dedicated public sector staff and elected members, openness and a forum or space in which discussion and ideas can be explored.  Where best to do this, but in a transformed existing partnership body, which already has some buy in?

For example, I was recently conducting a workshop with Cornwall Strategic partnership (CSP).  This is to be disbanded, but we looked at some ideas in terms of legacy.  Some of their plans for the future did point to a partnership body as a way of maintaining dialogue and looking strategically at shared, combined and innovative ways of delivering services.

As I write, I can already hear the critics saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ LSPs were policy at its worst, all bureaucracy, structures and process and no delivery.  However, in many countries, strategic partnerships are an institutional fix to the problems of silos and straight line service thinking, which are such a block to creativity and innovation in governance and transforming service delivery. 

This would not need to cost any money.  Many partners are willing.  Thus, before we slump off back to our silos and protect ourselves and our own institutions from the cuts, we desperately need to start talking and connect up the strategic spaces between local organisations.  This is where innovation and the future for public services lies.

 

Cooperatives cannot be the bargain basement for local services

22 November, 2010 Posted by: -

TheRochdale Pioneerswould be turning the grave if they thought cooperatives were about ‘more for less’!  It is laudable of theCabinet Officeminister Francis Maude to set out his vision across public services of a ‘rights to provide’in which mutuals and cooperatives would herald in ‘radical shifts in ownership, accountability and financing’ in public services.  I am all for experimentation, innovation and creativity in the delivery of public services.  However, there are valid questions of creeping privatisation or whether the delivery of a public service such as a Sure Start centre can be likened to the retail offer of John Lewis.  Furthermore, we cannot assume, that cooperatives and their rich heritage will be some elixir for public sector cuts.  

I am not the best placed to speak up for the cooperative movement, but my raw enthusiasm for the movement is grounded in the core values of theRochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, who first set out the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate to this day. These are now reflected in the International Cooperative Alliance, who state that:

‘Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others’

These values, to my understanding, must be reflected in operational terms to indubitable standards of effectiveness. Standards of employment, cooperation and of service. Efficiency is not the main driver here.  We must ensure the proposed flourishing of cooperatives in the deliver of public services, reflect these values and standards.  For example, they cannot be a Trojan horse for inferior employment terms and conditions.

Place leadership is something which you do not hear a lot about at the moment. We should be mindful, that local government performs vital overarching stewardship and coordination of  activities and services within the places we live. However, the deployment of cooperatives, could lead to the atomisation of service delivery within any given locality, through splintered ownership.  This will be recipe for a local government losing more strategic capacity.  This indeed would be ironic give the cooperative movement is all about collaboration.    

As Francis Maude says lets ‘challenge traditional public service structures and unleash pent-up ideas and innovation’.  However, we must not unleash an abuse of cooperative traditions, which fragment and denude the standard of public service delivery, and create a hollowed out local government who can no longer effectively steward the destiny of local places. 

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.

High stakes in rebalancing local economies

2 September, 2010 Posted by: -

As regards jobs, the coalition Government, appears sceptical about regeneration through public expenditure. For them, the private sector is ‘crowded out’ by a public sector which is distorting markets and inflating wage levels. In employment terms, the Government’s focus is on private sector jobs and rebalancing labour markets, away from public sector employment.

The employment rebalancing is predicated on two basic assumptions. Firstly, as the public sector workforce reduces, ex-public sector employees will get jobs in the private sector. Secondly, it is also expected that new private sector companies will move to the locality and existing companies will start to recruit more, attracted by the low wage levels and costs.

We need a dose of local reality here. There are real flaws in this simplistic assumption, and some huge barriers to surmount.

Firstly, these low wage costs, are not the big attraction, they seem. For instance - Stoke, already has high levels of public sector workers (35.6%), alongside high levels of worklessness (19.6%), JSA claimants (4.8%), and low wage levels £402.40, compared to say £560 in Reading. Clearly the private sector is not attracted by the pre-existing low wage levels.

Secondly, a lot of jobs are needed. The newly unemployed public sector worker will be competing with their former work colleagues for jobs and with the existing unemployed and presumably, others who are entering the job market through benefit system changes.

Thirdly, the public sector procures goods and services from the private sector and creates a load of indirect and induced employment. In cutting public spending, we are also cutting public sector supply chains. Work CLES has undertaken for Manchester City Council suggest that their supply chain supports 5000 indirect jobs in the private sector.

Fourthly, the private sector is hardly enjoying a buoyant economy at the moment. There is still real uncertainty over investment and business finance. Thus no company is recruiting with any real gusto.

An excellent article by Tim Leunig in Prospect has highlighted how, the outlook for areas with high levels of public sector employment are not good and the options are miserable. Accept huge levels of unemployment, see populations decline or have very very low wages. We could be heading for an even bleaker economic picture, than the one we had over the last 10 years, entrenchment of problems, with even greater social and community misery.

To avert this, the government must focus on direct assistance to specific areas. It must use funds such as the regional growth fund to help facilitate a long term transition to a rebalanced economy. The government may not like regeneration, but to avoid untold misery in some locations it will, in the short term, need to get back to doing some good old fashioned partnership based regeneration: investing in basic employment schemes, preserving existing skills activity, providing and removing the moratorium on the Grants for Business Investment. This will create transition time and space for the economy to get over the public sector funding shock, for rebalancing to occur gradually and hopefully avert misery for many.

LEPs must nurture adaptable local economies

24 August, 2010 Posted by: -

Local Enterprise Partnerships, in the very near future are going to have to stop thinking about structure and geographies and start thinking about what they are going to actually do.  They will need to start thinking about how they are going to rebalance local economies, develop business and new local economic futures.

For a starter, if they are to work, they will need to acknowledge and appreciate that the economy is a system and a network and that unpredictability and complexity is the norm.  The economic fortunes of a locality (as in any system) do not alter in a linear way.  In the same way as we cannot understand and nurture an ecosystem by just looking at the soil conditions, we cannot get to grips with rebalancing local economies toward private sector growth and commercial employment by just isolating single aspects such inward investment.  There is no single silver bullet.  This is the economics of the past. 

The successful LEPs - the ones that will make a real economic difference - will be the ones who understand that the economy, like an ecosystem, functions through the interaction of many elements operating at different scales and timescales. 

There are no set geographic scales (despite all the ongoing debate about adminstrative boundaries) - business operates at various scales appropriate to where their markets are.  There is no fixed operating environment fixed in perpetuity - events, such as floods throw economic strategies and policies.  There is no single timeframe or speed of operation - the tube breaks down and in minutes the important business meeting is missed; stock markets crash over days and weeks, housing markets change over months, and long term structural economic change can take decades.

LEPs, must not view the economy as some efficient, deterministic, running on automatic machine.  Successful LEPs will know and will create an operation which appreciates that the components of a local economy are in constant flux and are unpredictable and that adaptability and flexibility in planning a local economy is key.    In this they will need to major on four key things, which are key to this flexibility and adaptability. - Good economic intelligence and knowledge; effective connections between and within ALL elements of the economy (public, social and commercial economies); Market relationships within and outwith the LEP geography and innovative and creative business networks.

LEPs must nurture adaptable local economies.

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