Is the core role of local government still place shaping, or is there a danger this phrase could distract from a new core purpose?
Place shaping is a process and not an outcome. Knowing what good looks like may differ depending on whether you are a resident, a business or a visitor. Measuring progress is difficult and makes it hard for local government to demonstrate it is offering value for money. It is also easily misunderstood to be narrowly defined as economic and physical regeneration.
In addition, councils now have fewer resources and powers to shape places. Despite some devolution, most place shaping powers are controlled by national governments. The proposals on business rate retention still offered relatively little local flexibility.
So does this mean local government has had its day? Far from it, but its core purpose needs rearticulating.
Perhaps instead of places, a better emphasis might be on people, and better still to think about this as a population to avoid any notion that this is just about individual support services. Improving population wellbeing might not be as catchy as place shaping, but it perhaps better sums up what councils should be doing.
Defining the population is an important first step. Although a council’s legal duty might be to its resident population, it is also increasingly relevant to know about migration into and out of an area. This might be on a daily or seasonal basis for work or a longer-term trend.
Secondly we need to be clear about what wellbeing is. The definition is becoming increasingly clear as are the ways it can be monitored. Wellbeing is about how we are doing as individuals and communities. The What Works Wellbeing Centre defines wellbeing as having 10 broad dimensions: the natural environment, personal wellbeing, relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills and governance. Local government can profoundly influence all these. The centre recently published a set of indicators for monitoring wellbeing at council level. This complements the Measuring National Wellbeing Programme at the Office for National Statistics.
Finally, there is the question of how wellbeing can be improved. Again the evidence of what works is improving. The What Works Wellbeing Centre has developed a comparison tool allowing interventions to be ranked by factors like the strength of the evidence and cost. The things that make a difference include job quality, housing, green space, health and education, in all of which local government can have a big impact.
Local government is facing an existential financial crisis. Now is the time to redefine its core purpose as improving wellbeing.
Andrew Furber, president, Association of Directors of Public Health