Plan B: working beyond the affordable
The enormity of change for local government is multi-dimensional, and perhaps time is needed to absorb it properly – at least that’s how it feels to me.
It is worth looking back to how the old local government world worked in the 2000s. We were generally well funded, albeit often as a franchise of central government. We could meet most community needs but not all. And those we didn’t meet stayed low-key, quiet, often covered by third sector activity and the remarkable work of carers, etc.
Today’s world is quite easy to view in financial terms, with our funding pot shrinking, but community needs increasing. We rightly focus on the higher end needs, leaving a much bigger un-met gap, particularly for those who feel they have had things taken away. I think our first strategy has been to honestly share our funding dilemma with our communities, hoping they will balance this with their wider experience of today’s economy: pay freezes, low interest rates; a slow housing market or stories of welfare changes.
But entering the second year of delivering CSR 2010, I feel far less confidence in this plan. The un-met gap is now very noisy, with the emergence of legal challenge at both policy level and decisions for individuals, particularly around care. This noise quickly becomes uncomfortable territory for our politicians. So what is Plan B?
I don’t want to use the phrase “Big Society”, but I am convinced that local government has to position itself as the facilitator of un-met need. We must not be arrogant enough to attempt to direct community resources or unilaterally redefine our relationship with the citizen, but we do have vital skills, experience and assets to deploy.
I’ve not yet got my head around the fine balance between sponsoring “Active Communities” and yet still trying to manage demand, but I think I want my workforce to learn the skills of working beyond the needs that we can afford to meet. It’s actually rather brave at a time of financial restraint to be prepared to spend scarce resource in this new arena, but the pay-back is potentially huge; our reputation depends on it; and Plan A won’t be enough.
Pete Bungard, chief executive, Gloucestershire CC