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A new role needs a new social contract

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Local authorities like other public services are facing unprecedented financial challenges but also significant pressures created by demographic change.

These factors inevitably compromise what we are able to deliver. In tackling these challenges we run the risk of being seen as providing inferior services, thus further eroding the credibility of local government.

At the same time, society’s needs and aspirations have also continued to increase. Social media, the ageing population, decarbonisation, globalisation and the financial crisis demand a fresh look at the relationship between councils and citizens, alongside the ‘social contract’ we seek with both individuals and organisations that live and work in our cities.

Councils cannot deliver any of their services and objectives alone, and the reality is that the best cities and towns will need to combine the best values of all sectors

The public are expressing concern about the cuts and are increasingly seeking to influence the process of deciding what is delivered to those most in need. This is the greatest possible endorsement of the value of local, democratic decision making and, above all, of the high regard which people have for public service. 

For all of these reasons, now is a good time to reassess the role of local government and seek to set out a positive, credible and coherent vision for the sector.

Many of the recent new models of local government - “Easy-council”, “The Outsourced Council”, “Shared Services Council”, “The Co-operative Council” - have focused on the structure of Councils rather than all sectors.

Councils cannot deliver any of their services and objectives alone, and the reality is that the best cities and towns will need to combine the best values of all sectors: the accountability, fairness and public service ethos of local government, the connection with local people of the Third Sector, and the efficiency and dynamism of the private sector.

Councils will need to change to become much more enterprising, entrepreneurial and responsive to their local communities, whilst retaining their role as major employers, service providers and democratically-mandated leaders. 

This new role would demand a new ‘social contract’ with local people to help make local places more liveable. It will also require businesses to play a more active role as corporate citizens and the third sector at act as a catalyst for connecting with local people. The overall aim would be to create a new entrepreneurial spirit to create new jobs to replace those lost in the public sector.

I have established a commission to consider these points. We will produce a report that reassesses the role of local government, suggests practical actions that could revitalise local democracy and public service, and enable greater ‘civic’ responsibility from businesses, public agencies and the third sector.

Keith Wakefield (Lab), leader, Leeds City Council

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