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Resolute, determined and whacking gophers. Reflections from the Solace summit

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LGC’s essential briefing from last week’s Solace Summit in Manchester 

“We’re resolute, determined, full of heart and ready to change the world, as no other bugger will do it.”

So said Jo Miller, president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, at the end of the society’s annual summit.

The quote cannot be said to apply to central government right now.

During the course of the conference the resignation of defence secretary Michael Fallon (allegedly due to lewd talk to the woman who now leads the House of Commons) further added to the impression of disarray at Westminster (which Labour added to with its own alleged sexual harassment shame). The summit also coincided with the first rise in interest rates in a decade and the government losing a Commons vote which will force it to publish a series of impact studies which are widely expected to show how awful Brexit is expected to be.

The bewildering and uncertain nature of our times has become a standard networking conversation opener at events such as the Solace summit in recent years.

From LGC’s conversations at this summit, many chiefs have adopted an almost Zen-like calm in relation to going about their own jobs as chaos reigns elsewhere.

LGC spoke to some officers who are proponents of their councils being reorganised, potentially putting some of them out of a job in the process. They have struggled to make any plans for their organisations due to Whitehall inaction. All await central government making its mind up; or finding parliamentary time to get an act through; or working out if it has sufficient support from backbenchers to get contentious restructuring through Parliament. Some were angry, some were sanguine; all were appalled that central failings were thwarting their plans to improve local services.

Local government funding is perhaps the ultimate victim of central inertia. As Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, put it, “there’s no clear or credible view” emerging in government about the future direction of council finance. Few expect this to emerge any time soon.

But we live in an age of supposed devolution. Surely officers in Greater Manchester – devolution’s poster child – would be a bit chipper?

Not so Steven Pleasant, Tameside MBC’s chief executive, who railed against the “40 civil servants who are employed planning transport in the north, all based in London”. He could “guarantee that they won’t deliver electrification or a decent road across the Pennines”, and a whole series of other measures while they would “deliver a suboptimal model for the reconfiguration of Manchester Piccadilly station”.

Maybe the issue of skills would provide more devolutionary optimism. Largely not (although Local Government Association chief executive Mark Lloyd did predict there could be some additional devolution in this area stemming from the forthcoming industrial strategy). David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, described the handing down of skills budgets, currently subject to Whitehall driven delays, as more of a “delegation” than a devolution. With there rightly being a statutory duty to support illiterate adults, there would be little budget remaining for local partnerships to supply the place-defining skills employers sought.

Meanwhile, Wakefield MBC chief executive Merran McRae used the best analogy of the conference when speaking of the multiple burdens faced by directors of children’s services amid rising demand and limited budgets. “It’s like trying to hit gophers on the head – something different always pops up”. She spoke of the sector facing “a football manager syndrome” as the heads of DCSs were always sought after inevitable scandals when problems stemmed from more systemic problems.

On this issue, Mr Whiteman had earlier said that there was a clear national view. The Department for Education had an “agenda” of taking troubled children’s services departments away from councils; the sector would face “academisation”, he said.

So in many respects there is much to be miserable about. However, the stoicism of senior officers shone through at the summit. They put up with a lot and are carrying on while Whitehall implodes.

There comes a point when even the most dedicated officers decide enough is enough. There must have been some envy today when it emerged Newark & Sherwood DC chief executive Andrew Muter was moving to a job as chief executive of the States of Alderney. He will oversee an island with a population of 2,000 and covering three square miles.

Mr Muter’s move follows the announcement that Westminster City Council chief executive Charlie Parker is moving to a similar role in Jersey. It may well be the case some chiefs regret there are not a few more Channel Islands.

* This briefing has been corrected after we initially incorrectly said Charlie Parker was moving to Guernsey.

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