Conflict between different tiers of local government over funding is “yesterday’s discussion” and building influence in Whitehall through “the power of good strategy” must be the priority, the new chair of the Association of County Chief Executives (ACCE) has said.
Dorset CC chief executive and newly appointed ACCE chair Debbie Ward told LGC she will seek to refresh the organisation and make the case for further government investment using evidence gathered from the organisation’s “unique” knowledge of areas with broad demographics and geographies.
Speaking to LGC before Northamptonshire CC became the first council in almost two decades to issue a section 114 notice, Ms Ward called on the sector to move on from the long-running debate over which councils have been hardest hit by funding cuts.
Ms Ward said: “This is not one tier of local government against another, that is yesterday’s discussion. It is about stepping out of that ‘who is worse hit?’.
“That divisiveness is secondary. The whole issue is there is not enough money. Our intention is to demonstrate that need for growing those resources again.”
She added county chief executives can make a “bigger difference” due to a “wider level of strategic thinking”, citing the example of the need to connect rural areas, cities and “powerhouses” to boost economic growth.
“It has to be about maximising that trust and confidence in government to put spending through local authority routes to have a real impact in local communities,” she said.
Ms Ward said ACCE must “fit in” with the representations mades by other local government groups and bodies but added she will look to provide a “unique” perspective, as large organisations are required to represent a broad membership.
She added: “From a political level, the County Councils Network’s voice has really been strengthened and refreshed. But we, through a managerial perspective [and] taking out the political element of it, have got leaders here that day in, day out are trying to deliver local services across a wider population.
“It is about the really seeing the power of good strategy where you are trying to tackle inequalities. Resources can follow that ambition and intent.
“We are working on how we make sure that we are getting that representation in there, that wider view properly thought through, investigated and the evidence base to ensure that some of the work we are doing really gains profile.”
Ms Ward said trying to persuade government may appear to be a “pointless” task to some but added it is a necessary ambition as the impact of austerity on individuals has been “huge”.
She said dwindling funding has forced “transformational thinking” and the realisation that councils “can’t carry on doing things in the ways we have previously done”.
Ms Ward said: “We can’t just keep cutting and cutting, [that’s] not sustainable. We must share experience and build capacity and understanding between [public sector] organisations, share best practice but also share when we have made mistakes.”
In November, housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said he was minded to approve the proposed ’Future Dorset’ reorganisation, that would see the area’s nine councils, including Dorset CC, abolished and replaced with two new unitaries.
Ms Ward said it was important that councils are not “tied by our existing frameworks” and added joint working is key to meeting service delivery challenges.
She said that, while getting a final decision on Dorset reorganisation soon would be welcomed, work would continue between the councils involved to develop new, collaborative models of service delivery.
Ms Ward said: “We are working together continuously and the amount of work that is completely abortive we keep to a minimum, so we are being realistic but we couldn’t stand still.
“There is still a lot of respect where there are concerns.”