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Many threads to a common weave

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West Midlands chief executives’ views on the changing nature of councils’ work and how this affects the skills they require

What chief executives are thinking

The conversations were structured on the premise that for most councils the plan for the next two years was largely in place. It was when we began to explore the medium term that the conversations took on a more dynamic nature. While most were clear where they needed to pay attention over the next three to five years, the detail of what needed to be done and how to get it done was still being explored.

As Martin Reeves at Coventry City Council identified, approaches focusing on demand management are critical in controlling costs, but the development of such approaches is in its infancy and clearly we need to learn rapidly. Although each conversation highlighted different priorities, common themes emerged.

 The future role of local government

The broadest element of the conversation focused on the role of local government. With some councils predicting that on existing trends there will be insufficient funding even for their statutory services, clearly clarity of purpose is essential.

Simon Warren at Wolverhampton City Council asked what the ‘government’ in local government really meant. If funding cuts reduce councils to overseeing an ever decreasing basket of services, what exactly is being governed? It is certainly not the place; so ‘what is required to govern a place?’ becomes a pertinent question. Inherent in such a question is also the definition of a place. Simon suggested our current boundaries were based on history and may be unhelpful if they do not align with, for example, health and criminal justice boundaries.

The new ‘commons’

Mark Rogers at Solihull MBC looked back at the origins of municipal government, noting the need to provide services ‘in common’ comes to the fore.

In particular, this has been around the provision of things needed for communities to grow or be healthy, but that no individual or business has the wherewithal to source efficiently alone. The laying of gas mains in Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham is an oft quoted example.

This led on to discussion around ‘new commons’; what are the things councils might need to provide in common in order to secure future growth? The discussion looked at finance, data, fast broadband, energy continuity and food security as possible themes for the Transcend programme to explore.

Notions of councils’ purpose also played into elements of many other conversations. For Paul Lankester at Stratford-on-Avon DC the model of council as a small, principally political body was explored. A consequence of this might be that a council predominantly outsources much of its delivery and holds a number of shared services arrangements with partners.

It is important to shape arrangements to be in the best interests of small communities rather than large providers. It is vital to avoid arrangements that lack the capacity to adapt as the environment changes and thus become ultimately ­limiting.

Energy continuity figured in the future for John van de Laarschot at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. For all councils, being able to offer cheap energy to residents and businesses offers big advantages.

Local geography

Another strong theme to emerge was a focus on distinct areas of geography smaller than the council boundaries. This echoes David Miliband’s ‘double devolution’ from his time as communities and local government minister (LGCplus.com/511582.article) and is prominent in the current rhetoric of ‘localism’ and links with the Total Place approach. The issue is not simply about how the council might focus on a locality, it is about how it plays a role in leveraging the wider public spend in that place.

Jack Hegarty at Wychavon DC also explored this theme. He recognised the differing requirements of the individual towns in his district and was prepared to be bold in satisfying them - he already hosts a hospital in the council offices. This may mean being the provider of differential services within a place, perhaps by adding a precept where there is a local will to do so. This requires an ability to have sophisticated conversations with towns on points of difference. For Jack, councils and their members need to become much more adept at handling these messy conversations if they are to effectively navigate this complex space.

Stephen Hughes at Birmingham City Council has begun the process of ‘localisation’ by using area committees of each locality’s councillors - based on the city’s 10 Westminster constituencies - to shape local delivery. The challenge is balancing local requirements with the economies accruing to the scale of service delivery. Local members can feel powerless when faced with large units of delivery. For Stephen, getting effective dialogue and communications running through the networks that make up a place is crucial.

This theme resonated with Paul Sheehan at Walsall MBC. If we are to deliver different services in different places we need to develop a level of connection we must properly explain what we are doing and what is driving it.

He also picked up on the whole-place approach to delivery. The four pilot community budget areas have had three years to develop their responses, considerable intervention from civil servants and in some cases a history of developing such work through Total Place. Given this, what would West Midlands authorities need to do to rapidly develop the capacity to make the most of this new development?

Nick Bell at Staffordshire CC was also pursuing the impact of locality approaches. For services to be commissioned at ‘micro’ level a town might find itself represented politically by town, district and county councillors. Each brings something unique and special to the process but councils haven’t always been adept at using their input.

However, the advantages of local knowledge and awareness and the opportunity to take advantage of scale can be seen as being in tension or as a source of advantage.

Social capital

Social capital also featured in the conversations with Trish Haines at Worcestershire CC and Jan Britton at Sandwell MBC, albeit in different ways. Trish has for three years been developing the ‘Shenstone Group’. This is an aggregation of significant local commercial interests and local public service providers, and is now a potent source of fresh thinking for the council. Its very nature means it doesn’t ‘deliver’ things; yet the potential to leverage the relationships it has built is very powerful, spreading a ‘viral’ sense of direction for the county through aligning its members’ various activities.

Sandwell, along with Belfast and Leeds, is participating in the Friends and Neighbours project that seeks to increase social capital locally. It aims to apply resident capacity to meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable members, reducing the dependency of those people on service provision by the council. The challenge is ensuring this ‘cottage industry’ can be scaled to make a sizeable impact on the future shape of adult social care provision.

John Atkinson is leadership adviser on the Transcend programme

www.westmidlandsiep.gov.uk/transcend

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