Few of us thought we would be watching the first Cabinet meeting of the new majority Conservative government take place so soon after the election.
About 46.5 million people voted and the result turned the pollsters’ predictions on their heads.
Whatever your opinions are about the outcome of the election, at least we now have a clear programme from a majority government. We are not hanging around for several weeks waiting for the white smoke to appear from the No 10 chimney.
When you consider the immense challenges that local government is facing and the timescale to respond to them being so pressured, having a clear, certain and early outcome for the election means we can get on with the critical job that faces us.
The Local Government Association has published its 100-day programme. It’s worth a read. Housing, devolution, social care, school places, child sexual exploitation, community relations and infrastructure investment are among the many issues it discusses, underpinned by the fundamental need for multi-year settlements so we can plan and act with certainty.
We also have a new communities secretary, Greg Clark. He is well thought of among civil servants and comes with the best background for local government right now, with his track record of brokering devolution and city deals.
The reason his particular background should matter so much was brought home to me in two recent announcements. First, was the news that the UK unemployment total is now at a seven-year low, with a further 35,000 people getting a job over the last quarter. Second was the Bank of England’s quarterly inflation report, which puts that news into context.
The bank’s governor, Mark Carney, has cut the growth forecast for the UK to 2.5% and warned of an “underlying weakness” as the bank sees a disproportionate number of the jobs being created as low-skilled and which generate low output. This means that poor productivity is at the heart of the bank’s decision to downgrade its growth forecast. Tackling productivity is at the heart of how we need to grow our economy.
Local government can make an impact on skills and productivity in our communities. For example, we need to support and challenge our further education colleges which, sadly, in too many areas, are underperforming and are also facing significant reductions in their budgets. We need to work with our school partners to improve the quality of careers advice to young learners.
We need to work with local employers and actively support the many new small business start-ups that are emerging. It doesn’t have to be complicated; efficient practice on our behalf in procuring more from local small businesses and paying their bills early can make a major difference to the survival and growth of many small and medium-sized enterprises.
Most importantly, we can also learn from the track record of many social enterprises and mutuals up and down the country that are turning old, accepted business models on their heads. They have transformed their productivity, found new sources of income, tailored services to meet new needs of their customers and saved money for the public purse at the same time.
Many councils are right this moment considering how they should deliver their services in this way. This is a bold agenda that isn’t just about reducing and cutting but about doing it differently, finding new solutions to our problems and harnessing the ingenuity of our staff and local people.
That is not to say there is no future role for savings. Many councils have significantly reduced and cut their operating costs already and the LGA reported this week that sharing back-office services across the public sector, led in many areas by local government, saved £462m since 2012. But meeting the challenge we face needs more than just a focus on savings.
There are two overriding priorities for local government for the next five years.
We need to deliver a step-change in our skills and growth support for local businesses so they can offer better skilled and better paid jobs to local people. We need to radically challenge how we deliver our services and release the potential of our staff and others in our communities to dare to deliver it differently.
Together these two will enable us to approach the rest of our challenges and, most importantly, will tackle the underlying weakness in our national economy that Mark Carney is so right to point out.
Katherine Kerswell, former director general for civil service reform, Cabinet Office