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Rob Whiteman: Two-tier structures 'don't make sense'

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The footprints councils currently cover are not sustainable in the long-term while the two-tier structure doesn’t make sense, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy has said.

Speaking this morning Rob Whiteman urged chief executives to better articulate that point to politicians at a local and national level through organisations like the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.

In a wide-ranging speech and question and answer session at Solace’s summit in Manchester on Thursday, Mr Whiteman also addressed finance and health reforms, his “fear” social care services might be nationalised, and the need for the sector to be more rigorous in its budget-setting processes.

While Mr Whiteman thought local government is sustainable overall he added it “might not be the optimal version” the sector might like it to be.

Mr Whiteman said the country is currently “operating on Victorian footprints” and added: “The geography of local government will become increasingly unmatched to the activity you’re carrying out in some areas.”

He suggested Southend-on-Sea BC and Thurrock Council could become London boroughs within 30 to 50 years.

“I wish the sector would talk about that and come up with a way forward because I do genuinely think the footprints you operate on will become increasingly unsustainable,” said Mr Whiteman.

When asked later in the session whether he thought the two-tier structure was sustainable, Mr Whiteman said “I don’t think two-tier makes sense” but added “neither does one tier” as he argued a role for town and parish councils.

He said chief executives “will have a very big role” in articulating reorganisation proposals as politicians will find it difficult to make the case. He suggested officers work “anonymously” through Solace to “push a policy agenda that says… ‘two tier doesn’t work and it’s not part of the future’.”

On a wider point about “speaking truth to power”, Mr Whiteman said senior officers’ voices had become “marginalised a bit” and urged them to do more to voice their opinions and “grab hold of the lobbying agenda”.

Mr Whiteman said the sector’s finances “are a bit of mess”. While the government has promised a fair funding review, uncertainty over the future of business rates reforms means “there’s no clear of credible view” emerging about the future direction of local government finance, he said.

Although Mr Whiteman urged councils to be optimistic for their communities, he added: “Don’t be overly optimistic in your medium term financial plans.”

He said: “The thing I most see going wrong is an over optimism… It’s all getting a bit close to the wire in lots of places. My best advice is really assume you won’t achieve all of your savings, really assume budget pressures will get worse, and really assume you’ll need more reserves, not less.”

Mr Whiteman urged the sector to avoid “high profile failures” as they “will do an awful amount of damage”.

He questioned whether the sector-led improvement model “on its own” is enough to improve “weak or poor councils. “If the answer is ‘no’ you should be arguing for regulation because service failure will do an enormous amount of damage to the sector,” said Mr Whiteman.

Mr Whiteman also told delegates he was worried central government going further to “hollow out” local government’s role and cited academies as an example. He added: I think DfE [Department for Education] does have an agenda of saying it will take away from local government the most troubled children’s services departments and over a period of time there will be an academisation of children’s services with local government having less of a role.”

Mr Whiteman said he also feared the government would nationalise social care.

“When social care does one day get funded there will be a huge tendency for government to think they will do it themselves. I hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Mr Whiteman, who is chair of the North East London sustainability and transformation partnership, also urged councils to “grin and bear the partly flawed” health reforms and “be in the thick of them because it’s one of the ways local government will be sustainable in the long run”.

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