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A council that should inspire us to think big

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A commentary on LGC’s awards.

As any online management-speak cliché generator will tell you, ‘standing still is going backwards’.

This is certainly true of local government where budget cuts and growing demand for services have forced councils to innovate to safeguard services and to survive. You can’t continue in the same old ways when you’re trying to do more with less (more management-speak, we know).

Last night saw the greatest celebration of innovation in the local government calendar in the form of the LGC Awards, our annual awards ceremony for council pace-setters, which was held at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.

The ceremony hosted by Channel 4 News broadcaster Jon Snow featured 20 categories designed to showcase local government talent.

LGC editor Nick Golding began the ceremony by paying tribute to those present as “innovators striving to improve your local areas despite austerity”.

“You may be bold and tireless public servants but all too often you’re denied the recognition you deserve,” he said. “The government is too distracted by Brexit to recognise your work. The national media isn’t interested. And even your residents may take your efforts for granted.”

On a similar theme, Mr Snow spoke movingly of the efforts of senior officers in difficult circumstances and pledged that his own programme would cover more local government stories.

As ever, the LGC Awards climaxed in the naming of LGC’s Council of the Year - this year’s accolade going to Barking & Dagenham LBC, a borough which has not always been known for harmony and progress. The borough was hit by the loss of industry, particularly the decline of its once mighty Ford plant, and became a fertile hotbed of the darkest forces in British politics with the British National Party winning 12 seats there in 2006 elections.

However, few councils have such a bold vision as Barking & Dagenham, especially under the leadership partnership of chief executive Chris Naylor and leader Darren Rodwell (Lab).

While so many councils are beset by the here and now, Barking & Dagenham has launched its Borough Manifesto which sets out a 20-year vision. The council’s submission to LGC judges noted how the document reflected that “socio-economic outcomes would take a generation to turn around”. The submission admitted that many of its residents endured “catastrophically poor outcomes”. It has also experienced a turbulent demographic change with a 90% of its population white British in 2001 but less than half today.

The council is now seeking to play to its advantages. Less than 20 minutes travel time from the centre of London, the borough has space for 60,000 new homes and sees itself as a hub for economic growth moving eastwards.

Its growth commission sought to develop 21st century workspaces for “artists, entrepreneurs and makers who are otherwise leaving London” and to develop the social infrastructure to focus on prevention, resilience and social capital.

The council has balanced its budget to 2021 and has dramatically redesigned its internal structure to focus on tackling the root causes of problems, axing old departments such as children’s services, adults and housing in the process. It vacated its civic centre in Dagenham, giving over the old building to an offshoot of Coventry University to focus on educating its population.

Citizen infrastructure has been a priority to reduce the tensions that gave rise to the BNP’s growth. Eighty thousand residents attended its 10 free festivals -the council aspires for every household to be able to access 100 activities from their doorstep.

LGC’s judges concluded that: “This bold council was equally strong on developing its civic society, economic growth and its organisational development plans and is doing this in a uniquely changing setting, marking them out as a place others could learn from.”

Separately, LGC has reported this week on how amid national political drift, it seems our national decision makers have failed to appreciate how power needs to be held closer to people’s lives. Power will be moving from Brussels to Westminster – not to communities across the UK. Those left behind who feel neglected will surely feel the same way in the years to come. There has been no vision of how we, as a nation, need to evolve.

The example of Barking & Dagenham shows that local government’s best innovators do have the potential to overcome this national malaise. There may be risk attached to innovation. But it is less than the risk of doing nothing. The boldness of Barking & Dagenham should inspire others across local government to think big. Indeed, it should (but probably won’t) inspire the government to think big.

By Nick Golding, LGC editor

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