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'I'm really scared'. Chiefs open up at the LGC Summit

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Commentary on how chiefs used LGC’s safe space to discuss their biggest concerns

In a poll taken at the start of last week’s LGC Summit, two-thirds of our chief executive respondents described themselves as optimistic for the future of local government.

The 24 hours of discussions that followed perhaps suggested that, although their naturally sunny dispositions led them to give a favourable headline answer, chiefs nevertheless have severe worries for the sustainability of their organisations, their ability to support their local population and for the quality of central decision making.

The LGC Summit – attended by more than 80 significant figures in the sector, the vast majority of them council chief executives – was this year held amid the sleek modernity of the National Football Centre in Staffordshire. Although it was held under Chatham House rules, LGC can report on the overall mood of delegates. Despair at the ability of councils to break free of the debilitating constraints of austerity was perhaps the most frequently expressed emotion.

The summit heard predictions local government would have contributed £16bn of savings to the Exchequer by 2020. Although the term is publicly hushed up, councils’ services are being rationed. With business rate reforms mired in uncertainty the question was asked whether councils should give back their statutory responsibilities to the government because they no longer have the financial capability to undertake them.

While no delegate indicated they had reached this point yet, it is fairly astounding that we have reached a stage where this is being debated. A number of attendees did, however, admit to making over-optimistic savings targets. “If we aren’t vocal about reaching the limits of what local government can do, we’re complicit,” was one attendee’s take on the continuing impact of austerity.

There was dismay that discussion of local government’s financial woes was all too regularly consumed by national political points scoring. In the absence of any cross-party consensus, it was down to councils to continue doing the “Churchillian thing”.

This epic fighting on the beaches all too often leads efficiency-hungry chiefs to lead on “disruptive innovation”, a term described as a “platitude” by one senior attendee. Staff were feeling like they were in a pinball machine and chiefs were struggling to win over hearts and minds.

This was also the case with councils’ relationships with residents and service users, with a growing disconnect emerging. This was exacerbated by councils’ inability to admit that they were being forced to decimate some services; chief executives were too often seen as unemotional or hiding behind management speak as their organisations were consumed by austerity. The platitudes must end, it is time to get authentic, one chief said. “Show vulnerability”, was one bit of advice.

“I am really scared – anxious, and worried about the future, even with the great assets that we’ve got,” was one chief’s take.

There was also a call for honesty about how much work chief executives can take on. Councils are often proud to describe themselves as outward looking but one chief said this had resulted in them having 41 partnership meetings in a month. “I had contact overload,” they said. The chief executive in question urged their counterparts to be brave enough to clear their diaries and refuse all meetings which were unlikely to facilitate change.

One change that is unlikely to happen is any major upheaval in local government’s financial outlook. “There isn’t going to be any reform for the next five years at least,” one big hitter said of council finances. Commercial projects had some potential to offer a little bit of extra income – but there was concern that councils could get burnt by risky investments in the property market. One authority’s decision to invest in a retail park in a completely different area of the country in the age of internet shopping was particularly scorned.

This LGC Summit was, of course, taking place only a few months after the first combined authority mayoral elections. A representative from one of the city regions in question noted their mayor had acquired power way through his convening abilities which had gone way beyond his statutory powers. And there was hope for Greater Manchester’s ability to build a truly co-ordinated health and care system. However, one put a benchmark for whether real devolution had been achieved as “is it an opportunity not to have academies?” That seems a remote prospect.

So there are widespread concerns about a lack of power and a lack of money. Nothing new. However, there seemed to be a rawer honesty than ever before at this year’s LGC Summit. Perhaps it was part of the impact of the horror of Grenfell on public servants (which was also discussed at length). You can’t hide behind management speak and management structures any longer – they are part of the problem.

The number of attendees was significantly higher than at last year’s event. Maybe those in the leadership roles have come to regard themselves as vulnerable. They are seeking mutual support and a private space to reflect on the hardest questions. The era of insisting they will do even more with even less has come to an end.

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