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Leadership has never been so vital

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‘Who runs London?’ is a question that demands a far longer answer than I can give here. It’s the very timely theme for one of our break-out sessions at the summit, because it goes to the heart of so many debates now taking place around the capital.

In the public’s mind, I’m sure there is some confusion over who has responsibility for a panoply of services, including the capital’s roads, schools, its waste disposal services or the planning for the 2012 Games. Understandably, most people won’t see how the different services overlap between London’s strategic arm of government, through the Mayor of London,  and the frontline in London’s boroughs.

For local authorities, explaining that leadership role is crucial. Their political leaders are democratically elected, and are constantly aware of the need to explain how and why decisions are taken, particularly at a time of scarce resources.

The issue of leadership was thrown into stark relief during the disturbances of August, where the boroughs were expected to act with great speed and agility to prevent as much damage as possible – both social and economic – to the fabric of their community.

We saw how good leadership in that case came to the fore, helping neighbourhoods engage in the clean-up work, by co-ordinating the recovery efforts, by showing resilience and leading on the work across and between boroughs to re-build themselves. The public rightly expects to see its borough leaders tackling both the immediate damage done to a high street, and to drive through strategies which are longer-term, and are aimed at preventing problems from happening in the first place.

One area where local authorities and the Mayor of London are determined to work together is in the rejuvenation and prosperity of our town centres.

It is difficult starting a new business today. For shops, large retailers dominate the centres. Out-of-town shopping centres have added competition to the high street, but it’s also true that the economic downturn has affected consumer spending.

 At London Councils, we’ve been helping partners to co-ordinate efforts to support businesses and economic resilience, but the central question keeps coming back – what kind of high streets can we expect to see in the future? Is it just the recession that keeps shoppers away, or is there some more fundamental change happening, driving people away from walking through the town and driving them instead to other out of town sites or just other leisure opportunities.

The question of what role local authorities play in helping local businesses go from strength to strength is one that will be addressed in the Summit’s morning session.

Our first panel session is titled ‘Driving prosperity through partnership’ and will discuss the delicate relationship that exists between residents, local businesses and the public sector. It promises to be a lively session.

We are even more fortunate this year to have a special lunchtime seminar, chaired by our co-sponsors The Workspace Group, focusing on how local authorities can work more closely with SMEs to encourage small business investment and growth.

We all want our local businesses to flourish and councils are already offering a lot of support whether it’s business rate discounts or free parking at weekends. But perhaps even more innovation is needed if we are to continue to help our local economies really prosper. That’s something which I hope can be discussed at The Summit, so that members from across the capital will have a chance to listen and to share their ideas.

John O’Brien, chief executive, London Councils

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