There is something really special about September, I think. I’ve always felt it is the most sparkly, exciting time of the year. I love the fact that it is misty in the very early mornings out on the heathland where I walk my dog at the crack of dawn. In a few weeks it will be too dark to see where we are going, but for now it is beautiful. And I love the way that the pace of life speeds up after the lazy tedium of the summer.
The sheer excitement of September is, of course, deeply ingrained in us all from a very early age. It all goes back to new pencil cases for school. A marketing lecturer once told me that the best way to make a new year’s resolution is to make it not in January, but in September. Try it - it actually works!
This September, I resolved all sorts of things, mainly personal, self-improving things, like: make daughter do own ironing and make dog do what it is told. And so far, I am optimistic about achieving at least partial results. Didn’t that used to be called ‘continuous improvement’.
These days, the world seems to be about being slightly less good with a lot less money - or is it? I refuse to succumb to doom and gloom in the run up to the comprehensive spending review, even though only an impossible idealist could fail to characterise the current financial climate as challenging.
One of my esteemed councillors went so far as to call my finance director a ‘miserable git’ the other day, when he presented our medium term budget forecasts. But local government is nothing if not resilient, and local public services are likely to remain in demand for quite a long time to come, I think.
My daughter has just started studying A-level economics. Homework on the first day was: ‘which public service(s) would you decide to cut, and why?”. I suggested that she should answer that this is the wrong way to think about the problem, and instead to argue for a new social contract between service providers and their communities to shape service provision according to local demand and need. Poor girl. Her eyes were glazing over just as I was getting into the subject. I might offer my services to her college as a guest lecturer.
It would be far too easy to decide to shut up shop on all but the most basic level of statutory services, but to me that would be missing the point. And in a few years, when the economic outlook has improved, do we really want to live in communities with no libraries or swimming pools?
In the spirit of never letting a good financial crisis go to waste, I think we should approach public service delivery with optimism and inventiveness. I can see a real potential for developing new ways of running services in the community, through mutuals, social enterprises and community self-help. But I firmly believe that there is still a role for councils to deliver services too.
At Waverley, we have been investing heavily in revamping our leisure facilities over the past two years, and we are about to take the decision to build a whole new leisure centre. It is an incredibly exciting project, and is the flagship of my administration’s manifesto commitment to the community.
I am sure there will be many commentators who will think we have taken leave of our senses. But these facilities are in demand in our area, and the public are clear that they want us the council to provide them. And we have in the process been able to turn our centres from being heavily subsidised to income-generators. We have even been able to reintroduce free swimming for the under-8s and over-80s.
By lucky coincidence, our local MP is the secretary for sport. He is going to be opening one of our modernised sports centres in a couple of weeks, and launching our 2012 Olympic Pledge loyalty cards - an idea whose inspiration came from last year’s local government challenge contestants (a bit like those coffee shop cards, but better for you).
This is the sort of exciting project that makes working in local government really feel good. There is nothing quite like being able to point to beautiful things and say that you had a hand in building them. And, if ever I am stuck for ideas for more good, self-improving resolutions, I need look no further than my own local authority’s discretionary service provision.