Budget setting season finds councillors embroiled in the minutiae of local government finance and with less money to go around, the battle lines are drawn over how we provide services, our priorities and what is affordable.
In this sometimes fractious environment, in which councillors are only too aware of how residents will be affected in the short-term, it is easy to understand why stimulating long-term economic growth might not be at the forefront of everybody’s minds.
I would argue that it should be.
Councils have a long and honourable tradition of working with and for local communities to stimulate growth in times of recession. Our role in retraining workers after the decline of manufacturing in the 1980s is just one example.
In 2012, a council’s role is not specifically to create jobs, but to create the right conditions for businesses to flourish. We provide the basic services on which they rely and can use our regulatory powers to facilitate growth, attract investment and encourage education providers to give local people the capability to thrive.
As a nation we are far too centralised economically. Solutions are seen to be national when often they could be local. Elsewhere the reverse is true. We have already seen business comparing us poorly to Europe’s civic leaders in terms of encouraging growth. They may have a point, albeit one that doesn’t recognise that in many cases it hasn’t been a wont of ambition but a restriction of freedom which has prevented greater action.
In response, the LGA has arranged a debate in March with Commonwealth and European mayors to see how we compare in the drive to attract foreign investment and support exporters, particularly in the high growth economies of China, India and Brazil.
We have also been working innovatively on how bonds and the strength of our local government pension schemes can be better used to stimulate local economies and growth.
It is clear that we need to be radical. We mustn’t be afraid to challenge Whitehall, or to challenge ourselves, as the real goal has to be growth in the national economy, underpinned by growth in local economies.
Sir Merrick Cockell, chair, LGC and Leader Kensington and Chelsea RBK