David Cameron has promised to govern for one nation but, when it comes to local government, his challenge is to avoid the emergence of two.
The Conservatives simultaneously hold very different views of the sector. On one hand, councils are powerhouses for driving growth, led by entrepreneurs who encourage the private sector and cream off a sliver of the proceeds to deliver public services. On the other, the sector is an expensive beast that gobbles up money to entrench dependency.
The contrast between these two nations of local government was clearly on show in the Conservative election manifesto. There were long lists of new roads to be built and promises for more power to the northern cities but precious little on the future of local public services. Mr Cameron’s new government now has to follow through on its promises of cutting £12bn from the benefits bill, spending £8bn more on the NHS and cutting billions more from day-to-day public spending. No prizes for guessing which part of the public sector will bear the brunt of these changes.
If the Conservatives are serious about being one nation, they will need to bring forward new plans for not just healing the economic divide but driving a reformation in the way services are delivered. A good place to start would be by bringing together the £5bn of transformation money spent across government into a single investment pot to provide up-front capital for local integration efforts.
We need a renewed push to bring health to the table on the better care fund; a much more ambitious debate about bringing benefits, further education and schools into a new integrated employability system; and a proper discussion about funding social care. Critically, we need a renewed push to build a social and philanthropic economy that can help to fill the huge gaps that cuts will leave in communities.
If local government is now about driving growth, then we need a fuller debate about the ways in which growth can foster social inclusion. Councils will need new powers to plan their cities so that housing and transport are in the right places and a much more sophisticated set of tools to raise skill levels, help create better jobs and ensure the excluded can get them.
Over the last parliament, Mr Cameron’s government persevered in the belief that cuts could be dealt with solely by efficiency, pay reductions and back-office sharing. If that was ever true, it is not today.
The Conservatives are back and they want a different kind of state. That is their right, but their responsibility is to provide local leaders with the right tools for the job.
Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network