Dame Louise Casey has told local government its “mindset has to shift” and that it needs to “regenerate” in order to capitalise on a decline in central government prestige.
In a wide-ranging LGC interview, the high-profile former civil servant challenged local politicians to overcome party division to collaborate to make a more compelling case for council empowerment. However, she warned the sector had much to do to overcome its low status in Whitehall.
Dame Louise, whose 18-year civil service carer roles included serving as director general of the Troubled Families team and leading an inspection of Rotherham MBC following its child sexual exploitation scandal, left the Department for Communities & Local Government, as it was known, last summer to work in positions in academia and as an adviser for the Institute of Global Homelessness. Her last work for the government was a review of community cohesion, about which she was also interviewed by LGC.
Exclusive: Casey urges sector to regenerate and find united voice
She said of her decision to quit Whitehall: “Part of the reason I knew my time to leave had come was because if you want to get big things done in the next five or 10 years, I’m not sure being within central government is going to be the place for that.”
Central government could be “tricky” in the next decade, she predicted, with Brexit “all-consuming and people in Westminster on all sides of the political divide obsessed with it”. As a result, local government’s “time has come” and “as central government becomes weaker local government could become stronger”.
However, councils required a “mindset around effectiveness, assertiveness and confidence”, which is not “as present as it needs to be”.
“There’s constant politics at play; the government has politics, local government has politics but the mindset has to shift,” she said.
Much depended on “whether the leadership across local government will work collaboratively across political parties” to get its case across, Dame Louise said.
She cited housing as an example and questioned whether local government as a sector had “an alternative plan” stating the three ways in which it could boost housebuilding.
“Part of the problem for local government is, as a sector, where is its voice? Its voice should be through things like the Local Government Association and also Solace [Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers]. But it also needs to have a voice which is united.”
Dame Louise praised leaders including LGA chair Lord Porter (Con) and chief executive Mark Lloyd, and Solace president Jo Miller. However, she said disunity over issues such as the status of council chiefs made her think “can’t you just get your act together really because we kind of need you to?”
She also claimed the sector often spoke “too quietly” about its successes. She said Manchester’s response to the Manchester Arena terrorist attack is “an extraordinary tale of leadership and companionship of people in senior positions” and added: “It’s an inspirational story about dealing with that horrific crisis and yet I’m not sure that we’ve told that story.”
Similarly, with regard to improvements at Rotherham, Dame Louise commended chief executive Sharon Kemp and leader Chris Read (Lab) but said “we’ve never done the story of recovery”.
“I respect the humility of a lot of council leaders and council chief executives at times like that but I think the country needs hope; we need hope that some of our leaders do a really good job,” she said.
While “the vast majority of what local government does is bloody brilliant”, “there isn’t an acceptance of that within Whitehall”, she said.
“I don’t think local government has always enjoyed the highest of regards of any of the four prime ministers I have served,” she said. “Unless I’m getting something wrong I don’t see permanent secretaries across Whitehall think of local government as the most important part of the public sector.”
She urged officers and councillors to “think through what the future of local government is going to be and how it’s going to organise itself”. Referring to councillors who had committed misdemeanours such as non-council tax payment, she said a “kind of cleaning” of the sector “would be wise” to avoid a situation in which “the few bad apples easily bring everyone else into disrepute”.
Such questions could, she suggested, be considered by a “regeneration commission for local government”. “We do need to regenerate local government; we really, really do. And we need to understand it and what we want to change about it and we need to take some of the politics out of that so it’s not a left/right issue: it’s a ‘how do you get this right?’ issue.”
The sector’s response to Grenfell Tower:
“I actually think the Local Government Association wanted to move incredibly quickly in getting different leadership at officer level into K&C – all credit to them. I think we could have done that faster. Whoever makes those decisions, they could have been made faster.”
Sajid Javid’s LGA speech, lambasting the sector as a whole for the Grenfell response:
“I probably would have cautioned Sajid in being quite so strong because we all need to take a look at ourselves at times like that and ask ourselves ‘are we good enough?’ when something goes horrifically wrong.”
Pressure to find scapegoats in Rotherham
“We were under enormous pressure to have quite a lot of names named in our inspection report and to go for individual members of staff and we did cite some particular individuals… It was the culture, not just individuals.”
“Some of the charities that you’d expect to have strong voices of criticism [of government policy] in the last decade have not been – either because they’re receiving significant funding from statutory service and their edge on campaigning has gone, or that they’re set in this motion that if you’re going to get something done, you lobby central government and get them to do it.”
Whether she could become a council chief
“I’m not sure I could do a good job as a chief exec on a local authority. I’d be a very different one and that would have to be the terms of engagement. I think I’m clever but am I clever enough to be a chief executive of a local authority? I’m not sure that I am.”