Party conference season is well and truly under way and, here in local government, don’t we just know it.
It is a season of headlines, policies and planning, which just goes to show that churn and change is becoming the norm in our sector.
Since my last column, voters in Scotland decided to remain part of the UK. There is no doubting the impact of the Scottish referendum just a few weeks ago, and the fact that it has brought to the fore some wider constitutional questions.
It would be a missed opportunity to look only at the technical issues around the West Lothian question, while failing to recognise the underlying desire for greater control and more effective decision making in England. ‘English votes for English laws’ or a new ‘English Parliament’ would both still leave decision-making in Whitehall, disconnected from communities.
To be meaningful, devolution must be at a scale that can create and improve approaches to the big issues that define the economic and social backbone of the country: modernising our transport infrastructure; developing a skilled workforce; delivering much-needed housing; helping long-term unemployed people and families with complex issues; caring for our ageing population; and keeping the lights on while reducing our environmental impact. The ingredients for success are found within places, not in national government department silos.
The moment for change has arrived and local government is equipped to lead it. Areas need to be able to retain and invest more of the economic rewards arising from the work of local government partners, to help drive higher economic growth and reform public services to increase resilience and reduce dependency.
Westminster’s leader Cllr Philippa Roe this week compared the current relationship between local and central government to having your first ever current account, topped up occasionally by the bank of mum and dad. I couldn’t agree more. If we are serious about addressing challenges and making the most of opportunities in local government, we need the powers and responsibility to share risk and reward, leverage the assets an area has, and use revenue streams more effectively. This way, we can plan ahead with certainty over the course of a parliament so that we can deliver real change at a lower cost. That is a proper ‘business account’ with a business plan to boot.
Building on our track record, we have set out a three key issues where greater control for local authorities would make an immediate difference to millions of people:
- Welfare to work: after five years of the work programme, the government accepts the need for a fresh approach to supporting the longest term unemployed and those with the biggest barriers to employment. One size simply does not fit all; we need a local approach to get people into work. Ambitious work on local pilot schemes being developed across the country must, if successful, be translated into a real commitment to devolve commissioning responsibilities and control of funding.
- Skills and education: by accepting central management and arcane funding formulas in our skills system, we risk holding London and the UK back. Why should the bright young things in the capital’s burgeoning tech industry, for example, wait for a civil servant in a dusty Whitehall office to sanction funding for courses that provide the workforce they need? We need the ability to motivate skills providers to meet employer demand in growth sectors, helping people to gain the skills they need.
- Health and social care: the challenge of bringing together the two seemingly monolithic establishments of acute health provision and social care is well recognised but depends on local vision and clout to translate into reality. The better care fund is a helpful start, but needs to be managed locally; in the longer term, a single locally financed system could underpin the shift we need towards preventative measures and away from costly treatments in A&E.
We’re not asking for a credit card; just credit where it’s due. Local government has a tremendous track record for innovation in the face of the need to make savings or stimulate growth. The tri-borough of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea has become a well-known example of saving money in back-office functions and improving services for residents. We in London, along with many core and key cities, are at the forefront of exciting and critical economic plans to grow our regions.
We can take that to the next level across England and, as a result, the UK will benefit.
Charlie Parker, chief executive, Westminster City Council