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Working for the common good

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Local government is shortly to embark on perhaps the riskiest re-drawing of the role of the state ever attempted outside of war or revolution.

Councils will have three years at most to place big bets on merging with NHS organisations, asking communities to take on further services, and introducing new technologies at breakneck pace.

But maybe the next wave of public service reform isn’t really about public services at all. If we’re going to have a smaller local state – and there appears to be cross-party consensus on this issue – then we will need to find ways to persuade the market and the civic economy to solve their own problems. We will have to break the nearly century-old link between a big local state and social progress, and find new ways to create fairer places through markets, culture, technology and communities.

This reform is a challenging agenda for many parts of the public sector. We have grown used to the idea that the market should let rip and generate tax revenue which the state can reinvest in services to support the vulnerable, but the financial crisis has combined with an ageing population to break this model. The local state is becoming a smaller player in society, and will increasingly need to get a lot better at influencing and co-ordinating some of the others.

Of course, local government has always done work to shape local markets and engage with voluntary groups. What we need now is to bring this work into the core of how councils operate. And we need a new metaphor for ‘place’ to lie at the heart of this change – that of the common.

Ideals held in trust

A common is, literally, a piece of land held in trust on behalf of the whole community. Certain economists will tell you that they tend to be over-used and under-maintained; historically, this is untrue. Common land was vital to many communities’ survival and there were often strict rules governing its use, and requiring people to contribute to its upkeep. At its most basic, the idea of a common suggests that business, civil society, communities and individuals all have a stake in the places where they live and should be encouraged to contribute more to them.

The idea of the commons suggests a smaller but more active state. This is particularly true when it comes to the economy: councils should shape their economic strategies to ensure that business growth actively supports social outcomes. Jobs are good in general, but middle-income jobs that local people can actually get are best of all, because they reduce dependency on public services. Places such as Swindon have experimented with setting shared social outcomes with their local businesses, asking them to contribute their efforts to making the town a better place.

In some cases, councils should actively seek to challenge the market to behave differently. Lots of authorities have already implemented bulk-purchasing schemes to reduce energy costs for residents. A few have started looking into setting up alternatives to payday lenders or twisting the arms of local employers to pay the living wage. Some are using their own approach to their workforce to create living wage jobs to support those affected by the bedroom tax.

Local government also needs a very different relationship with the voluntary sector. Each has become locked into a world view, which sees social organisations as primarily a means to deliver public services. In a world where many charities are fighting for survival, this inevitably leads to arguments about who gets what money. Instead, we need a relationship where each side works together to understand the real needs of local people and reconfigure services to meet them, worrying about where the money should flow later.

Seeding the commons

The final plank of a commons-based agenda is the creation of new peer-to-peer public services, which use technology to bring citizens together to help one another. Councils should examine ways to turbo-charge the time-banking movement, support the development of easy apps that help people organise action days to maintain local parks, and offer small amounts of seed money to social enterprises that can animate parks and open spaces with fitness and cultural activities.

Right wing commentators are currently falling over each other to tell us why the rigours of the global economy require a smaller state. Perhaps they are right, but if all we

Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network

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