Sir Bob Kerslake was challenged by Clive Betts in a recent communities and local government select committee hearing as to his view on LGA chair Merrick Cockell’s statement that government cuts are unsustainable for councils.
Sir Bob (former chief of Sheffield City Council) replied to Mr Betts (former Sheffiled leader): “We are not denying there are challenges for local government delivering these numbers, but do not agree with the view that calls it unsustainable… What we are clear about is delivering savings does require radical thinking about services.”
So what radical rethinking might be needed? Our current system of local democracy was designed in a mid-19th century industrialised society where suffrage was restricted. In 1831 large industrial cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester did not have a single MP. The first (or ‘Great’) reform act still excluded six out of seven males from the voting process. Universal suffrage was some way down the line.
Our system of local democracy is based on a group of rich men choosing who from among their number might have a go at running the place. When the number of voters rises dramatically we don’t know the people we’re voting for and have little if any connection with them.
So it is intriguing that all our ‘radical rethinking’ remains remarkably shy of considering what governance is really needed in a mid-21st century world characterised by global cities, networked lives and migration.
To radically shift the way the state works locally will be an undoubtedly contentious and highly political issue. To do this without an effectively functioning, modern local democratic model means we can only get a suboptimal outcome.
We might also do well to consider why most change attempts fail. One oft-cited reason is “too much happy talk from senior leaders”. You know the line, it goes something like: “these are testing times, but the senior team has consulted on the strategy and we have a clear route forward that will pull us through”. So that’s alright then. No need to change, everything’s OK.
Not only is Sir Bob caught in a civil service speak contradiction (services aren’t ‘unsustainable’, they just need ‘radical rethinking’) but his political masters are refusing to acknowledge that they need to change as part of the solution.
Being a bit more straight forward is essential to getting this radical rethink done. But that doesn’t keep senior civil servants in post, or get politicians re-elected.
We need this combination of rigour and fresh thinking to keep the plates spinning.
John Atkinson, independent adviser on leadership, strategy and creativity