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Casey is right: we need to regenerate together

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Commentary on Dame Louise Casey’s call for local government to speak with one voice

Dame Louise Casey has a reputation for plain speaking. She always tells it as she is. As a result of this the former civil servant has consistently thrilled her local government audience with her uncompromising analyses of the issues about which others have dared not speak.

However, in her LGC interview published on Friday, Dame Louise presented a sometimes uncompromising analysis of the difficulties facing local government. Some of the home truths she offered probably do not fall into the category of thrilling the sector. Well, her viewpoint that local government’s “time has come” will thrill but her warning that Whitehall remains largely unimpressed with councils and that the sector need to regenerate to take advantage of the centre’s weakness is stark.

Let us remind ourselves of what Dame Louise, the former Troubled Families tsar who quit the Department for Communities & Local Government last summer, told LGC.

She revealed that part of the reason she quit Whitehall was the diminishing strength of central government. Councils are increasingly the place to get things done, she said, especially when all national politicians are obsessed with “all-consuming” Brexit. So far, so good.

However, to take advantage of this sea change, Dame Louise told the sector its “mindset has to shift”, especially with regards to collaboration by local politicians of different political colours. She queried, for instance, why the sector doesn’t have three simple points it can put to central government to explain how it can solve the housebuilding shortage.

However, it was her questioning of sector leadership organisations that may provide most food for thought for LGC’s readership.

“Part of the problem for local government is, as a sector, where is its voice? Its voice should be through things like the Local Government Association and also Solace. But it also needs to have a voice which is united.” While she made a point of singling out the individual heads of the two biggest organisations for praise, she said disunity of different organisations made her think “can’t you just get your act together?”

This coupled with local government being too humble to promote its successes meant that despite most council services being “bloody brilliant”, “there isn’t an acceptance of that within Whitehall”.

Dame Louise’s call for local government to speak with one voice jars somewhat with the traditional perception of the sector being made up of lots of different organisations, each with different voices. Indeed the whole point of councils is that they are independent bodies, with their leaders having different viewpoints that reflect local needs.

LGC will stand up in defence of council chief executives, local politicians and politicians of different parties all having separate voices. However, LGC is confident Dame Louise acknowledges that there are different viewpoints within the sector. Her point is more a call to dramatically increase cooperation where possible and to end needless divisions on the basis of party or status as officer or politician. Unity can often mean strength, both on individual councils and across the sector as a whole. Sort out this stuff and local government will have a stronger pitch for devolution.

The vast majority of councillors go into local government to make a positive difference. However, it is hard to believe that inter-party squabbling is anything other than a deterrent for senior figures in local businesses or local services to stand for election; indeed, it can diminish the standing of an individual council.

At a national level the Local Government Association often has difficulty in agreeing its response to contentious issues. Its Tory and Labour members may often disagree on to what extent its statements can be critical of the government, especially in the run-up to elections. And, perhaps even more crucially, it faces a perennial problem of setting the agenda on issues such as local government finance which pitch urban versus rural and county versus district, with its members having differing needs. While LGC would argue that the LGA does a pretty good job in difficult circumstances, Dame Louise clearly knows from years of experience the sector’s internal divisions have a negative impact on how the government and broader society perceives it.

LGC both has sympathy for Dame Louise’s overall theme and is respectful of the rights of different parts of local government to have different opinions. In some respects these are two contradictory viewpoints. However, we clearly need to speak with one voice where we can and work together to come up with a vision for the sector that can have influence in Whitehall and beyond.

Dame Louise suggests in the interview that local government should set up its own “regeneration commission”. Dame Louise specifically said in the interview this could examine issues such as local government reorganisation and how to root out “bad apples” from councillor ranks. LGC might add that such a body would be ideally placed to examine how the sector can make itself stronger, and to examine how it can unite more regularly to improve its national impact. Local government should devise its own sustainable structure and finance system, or face either continuing with more of the same (anything but this…) or having change imposed on it by people who do not necessarily have its best interests at heart.

So such a commission needs to be set up without the usual soul-destroying wrangles about making it fully representative of different types of councils: it simply needs to feature local government’s bright and boldest. We urge the LGA, Solace and others to take forward this idea which will show local government to be on the front foot, leading change.

The sector as a whole could learn from the example privately expressed by the chief executive of one the country’s most reform-minded chief executives to LGC recently. He complimented his councillors on being almost uniformly signed up to the council’s overall radical vision. But they are still noisy and rumbustious on issues such as “dog poo and pot holes”, which are not damaging to the authority’s relationship with partners.

Local government as a whole has the calibre of leadership it requires to be farsighted. But occasionally it too should limit the tub-thumbing tribalism to the issues which are not going to damage its reputation.

Nick Golding, editor

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