Dear James, welcome to the strangest job in Whitehall. You are now leading a sector consumed by four big issues for which your department holds limited responsibility at best: economic growth, adult social care, children’s services and funding. It’s got to be pretty bemusing. So, before you get stuck in, here’s some advice very humbly submitted by this observer of your predecessors.
Don’t lecture. There will almost certainly come a time when you decide to give councils a public telling off. It might be because they’re fighting like cats in a sack or it might be because it’s a handy way of deflecting attention from the government’s own flaws. Whatever the reason, just say “no”. Local government is very far from perfect but councils are justifiably proud of how they have weathered the storm of austerity and continued to deliver services day in, day out. Lecturing will make enemies of the people you desperately need as allies if the country (and the government) is to survive some pretty major challenges ahead.
Do make common cause. Think of the big problems confronting the country: productivity, inclusive growth, an ageing population, housing, community cohesion. These are all things that councils are obsessively focused on every single day. Many are bringing genuinely innovative ideas to bear on these challenges. But it often seems that the government seeks every way to address these issues without making full use of the energy, imagination and local knowledge on tap in local government. So, make common cause early on and you’ll find you have no better allies in the fight to solve the country’s toughest issues.
Don’t get obsessed with structures. Politicians love structural change particularly when it comes to local government. Nothing looks more decisive. But raising impact relies not on organisational form but on the behaviours of those who work within an organisation. Of course, structure is important but whether reform leads to genuine culture change is rarely considered. So, whenever someone comes to you with a bold idea for a new structure, tell them to come back when they can explain how it will create a more creative, collaborative and autonomous workforce.
Do get obsessed with prevention. The big long-term threat to public services is relentlessly rising demand. Take a close look at the figures for the growing pressure on adult social care, children’s services as well as services outside local government. You’ll realise quickly that the sort of universal offer we so value has no future without a massive shift to a new way of working. Councils are well-ahead of all other parts of the public sector in adopting a preventative model but shrinking investment is a big block. If you are looking for a legacy, there will be nothing more meaningful than using your power to unleash the enthusiasm for prevention.
Don’t keep your head down during the spending review. Local government along with welfare recipients have shouldered by far the biggest burden of cuts over the last decade. The result is a sector that will soon be cut back to nothing more than its statutory services. At which point those services themselves will start to crumble. The outcome will be much poorer care or even no care for neglected and abused children, the disabled and the elderly. You need to be a champion for these people by making it clear to the Treasury that any spending review that fails to bring them financial relief will be a terrible abdication of the government’s duty to our most vulnerable.
Do pressure the Treasury to raise the housing borrowing cap. You’ve already stated that your big goal is to get more houses built. It’s a policy area with many moving parts. But it all comes down to one major goal: we need more genuinely affordable houses built quickly. The great majority of councils are ready, willing and able to fling up those cheap properties themselves but one big thing stands in the way: the limit on them being able to borrow to build. Given councils can borrow for all sorts of other investments, this is somewhat bizarre. The chancellor has introduced some limited flexibility as well as the obligatory bidding process for councils that want to take advantage. But spiralling rates of homelessness and the importance of a secure home to family wellbeing mean something much bolder is called for.
Finally, if in doubt about the right move, get out and talk to the people delivering local services. You’ll undoubtedly feel their frustration but you’ll also find no better source of inspiration and advice when fashioning policy. Best of luck.
Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network