After 37 years in local government I think I spot a developing trend!
We have sought to develop effective models for representing our communities; we have looked for new opportunities to engage with the public; and we have spent a lot of time and money looking at new structures and governance arrangements. Have we exhausted all possibilities? The trend suggests we have not.
The present arrangements for public sector governance are complex and somewhat fragmented. There is a lack of democratic accountability when it comes to some of our local government partners, such as health and the police. In large shire areas with a complex mix of urban and rural areas, partnership working is not easy.
A quick-fix unitary solution may not be the best answer for large shire areas. Now more than ever we need to look at ideas that could begin to provide the ‘golden thread’ that draws together services in a locality, re-engages the public and enhances democratic accountability.
Lack of accountability
The first option would be an elected mayor for an area. While this idea has received a luke-warm reception in local government circles, the recent mayoral election in London may have helped to heighten its appeal. Voter turnout in London was at an all-time high (45%). Public enthusiasm for mayors was established in 2001 when research by the then Department for Transport, Local Government & the Regions found eight out of 10 respondents agreed a mayor could speak out for the whole area and 58% thought a mayor would make local politics more interesting.
The second option could be a board of governors for the area where councillors are directly elected and have the powers to hold the major public service providers to account local councils, police, fire and health.
Now for the third option my preferred one and the most radical multi-functional councils.
Local councils would manage all public services. After all, if they are encouraged to place-shape they must be empowered to do that and agree service outcomes across their local areas.
For example, with coterminous boundaries, community safety priorities would be more closely aligned to local priorities and responsibilities transferred to councils, rather than vested in separate police authorities. Councils would become multi-functional bodies shaping health, police and local government functions across their geographic area.
The public sector, if based on large footprint, will reduce costs and maximise investment available for the front line. It can afford to sustain specialisms across a wide geographic area and minimise a “postcode lottery”. Coterminosity simplifies relationships and could support more effective joint commissioning and delivery of services. Of course, it needs to be flexible to direct delivery where it is most needed.
This is not just about changing structures. We also need to engage with our communities and neighbourhoods and interest local people at a grass roots level.
Devolved functions to a local level can also inspire people to get involved in shaping their communities. Neighbourhood-driven scrutiny and elections are two ways in which neighbourhoods may provide the first rung on the ladder to our politicians of the future.
Leading our public sector with democratically elected representatives must be at the heart of all that we do.
Whichever model is chosen, as a result of the debate, let it make sense to local people and be joined up so we can deliver better public services to meet their needs. The trend is inexorable.
Chief executive, Lancashire CC