In February 2015, I made the front pages of this magazine for saying I had never met some of my London chief executive colleagues.
For a short period this generated a sort of local government version of ‘Where’s Wally’ in pretty much every conference conversation I had. I have now met all 32 counterparts and none of them seemed to have exaggerated hermit tendencies.
During recent years there has been a significant turnover in chief executives. Not all of that change has been positive, particularly the loss of some of local government’s most articulate advocates, but the newer faces are helping form a new pattern of governance.
To colleagues outside London, the capital can appear coherent and collectively powerful. Having London Councils as a central policy and lobbying function gives us profile and platforms, while Whitehall being only a tube ride away offers potential access and influence.
Beneath the surface, however, the picture is less clear. Thirty-three chief executives is not a recipe for collective action (try agreeing on a pub for a Christmas drink) and the variance of boroughs is huge, as a place covering eight million people would be.
What’s making the difference now is the steady emergence of sub-regional partnerships. These are not contiguous for all public services, nor equally strong, but they are forming as coherent voices that counter the central zone and add detail on local issues such as health, skills or employment. A conversation between eight chiefs or leaders can be a lot more effective than one between 33. Some will raise eyebrow because the bureaucrats’ answer to a problem is more and not less government but these are far from combined authorities and their slow emergence is testament to their genuinely local ownership.
In meeting the most pressing challenges for London local government - housing, health and economic growth - can these emergent partnerships not only find local solutions, but broker between them for the whole city’s benefit? Having watched the devolution struggles and completed intra-regional bids, I sense there are pitfalls ahead.
So, a new question emerges. I may know all 33 chiefs but I haven’t a clue about the officials responsible for all but two of the sub-regional partnerships. London’s government is developing but colleagues from across the country have much to show us from which I suspect we might benefit.
As these sub-regional partnerships strengthen, it’s inevitable that the familiar institutions, not least London Councils and the London chief executives group, will need to flex to accommodate them. The city can ill-afford a series of sub-regional conversations and competitions with government but it does desperately need the more coherent voice and engagement it can bring.
Nick Walkley, chief executive, Haringey LBC