Local authorities are central in how people identify with their surroundings – a sense with important implications for public services.
- Ged Curran, chief executive, Merton LBC
- Simon Fletcher, managing consultant, Agilisys
- Nick Golding (chair), editor, LGC
- Alison Hughes, assistant director of strategic ICT partnerships, Bolton MBC and Wigan MBC
- Steve Modric, head of strategy, Homes England in the North West
- Michael Palin, chief executive, St Helens MBC
- Tim Pitts, managing partner, Agilisys
- Simone Russell, director of housing and communities, Welwyn Hatfield BC
- Gregg Stott, deputy chief executive for regeneration and growth, South Ribble BC
- Jamie Sutterby, director of communities and wellbeing, South Norfolk Council
- Robin Tuddenham, chief executive, Calderdale MBC
- Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis
As panellists gathered for an LGC roundtable, held in association with Agilisys, one confessed to feeling like an imposter. The subject for the event was the role of local government as a place leader. But Ged Curran, chief executive of Merton LBC, explained he presides over a council named after a place that doesn’t exist.
“Merton is a bureaucratic construct. There literally is nowhere called Merton, even in Merton,” said Mr Curran. “The west of the borough is incredibly wealthy, and then the east of borough very deprived. So our activity is aimed at dealing with different people’s identities and what flows from that rather than from the construct of the place.”
It was a thought-provoking point to begin the debate, run simultaneously in London and Manchester. The idea that local government should be a leader of place is well established. But just what is meant by ‘place’, and does that vary between areas?
Robin Tuddenham, chief executive of Calderdale MBC, also outed himself as a chief executive of a council for a place created by bureaucracy. His experience was different from Mr Curran’s. “Actually people do identify with Calderdale,” he said.
“They understand it and it’s something certainly the business community, the voluntary sector community, and other communities [identify with]. They also have other identities – Halifax, Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, the North, Britain and everything else – but they do identify with it.”
Reflecting on Mr Curran’s point, he asked: “Is it always right to say that we just have to do more work on place, and we’re all just going to try and do more and more on place? Or is it better to think that actually what place means will mean different things in different places?”
“Maybe controversially, given the point of the conversation is about place, actually the more important word for me is community,” said Jamie Sutterby, director of communities and wellbeing at South Norfolk Council. “Place is one way of describing a community, but there are often other ways that communities manifest themselves.
“And I suppose if you relate that to the role that we [in local government] play in systems or place leadership, actually it needs to vary, it can’t be a homogenous thing.”
In Wigan, a community-focused approach to place, built around relevant partners, is front and centre. “We’ve reorganised how we work in a place-based way into seven service delivery footprints,” explained Alison Hughes, assistant director of strategic ICT partnerships for both Wigan MBC and Bolton MBC.
“Now those aren’t coterminous with ward boundaries, and neither are they necessarily coterminous with health boundaries or GP surgery boundaries within the borough,” she said. “But they create a common sense of how communities identity themselves within our overall geography.
“You might have ward councillors elected for different wards but sharing a common community across those ward boundaries that they both need to care about. And they need to work together and recognise themselves as leaders of that particular self-identified community. The way we identify ourselves has to be aligned to how those communities naturally emerge.”
This was something new in local government, Ms Hughes said, “because I think historically we’ve always worked in terms of things being chunked up in a very neat way, and that’s no longer relevant”.
At South Ribble BC, a similar approach is being taken. “We’re approaching things on a thematic basis, not necessarily linked to wards or indeed any other administrative kind of setup,” reported Gregg Stott, deputy chief executive for regeneration and growth. “Themes provide us an opportunity of working a bit more fluidly, a bit more flexibly.”
Mr Curran suggested that defining place in this broader way is truer to the original thinking on the topic. He cited Michael Lyons’ 2007 report, Place-shaping: a shared ambition for the future of local government, saying that it wasn’t about physical place.
“He was talking really about leading place, in the sense of gaining the trust and confidence of the people we seek to represent and lead. So in that context, you can have a conversation that is about identity as well as about places,” Mr Curran said.
“The core, as I see it, is how do we get to a point where our residents are willing to place sufficient trust in us that we can wrestle some more power from the centre and therefore be more effectively delivering services?”
For Steve Modric, head of strategy for Homes England in the North West, “local authorities are the custodians of the place”. “It’s for them to set ambition and our role is then to support that and make it happen, rather than a big state intervention, which we don’t think is a particularly sustainable way of running things,” he said.
That issue of relations between central and local government is being explored by Localis, the think tank focused on localism. Its chief executive, Jonathan Werran, told the roundtable much debate on the progress of place-making will come down to “how local authorities can use their strategic powers to get those freedoms in terms of finance, investment, fiscal freedoms, and governance powers”.
He didn’t mean authorities should be waiting to gain those powers before acting. But it seems the pattern of activity varies. Simon Fletcher, managing consultant at Agilisys, explained he and his colleagues regularly converse with council officers up and down the country, and see a mixed picture.
“There are some authorities that seem to be doing well [on place] and others that are struggling to engage,” He said. “What is the secret ingredient?” In other words, what it is that distinguishes an authority doing well on place, bringing together different partners to build strong identities and strong communities, from those that are struggling?
“Local authorities are the custodians of the place.”
Steve Modric, head of strategy for Homes England in the North West
For Michael Palin, chief executive at St Helens MBC, part of the answer is developing something he terms “organisational disinterest”. He said it has been key to creating to St Helens Cares, an integrated health and social care system in the area which brings together the council, the NHS, the police and the fire service.
“When we began our health and social care integration we had a session which was an exercise of: ‘One of the organisations in this room will fail if we don’t work together, because one of us will fail financially and drag the rest down.’”
In that session was the clinical commissioning group, which through its sustainability and transformation partnership were aware it would have a £303m budget shortfall by 2020. Meanwhile, Mr Palin said, the council had to make £22m of savings by 2020, the police £25m, and the fire brigade £11m. The housing association would also lose £17m through regulatory change.
“We said we would all be organisationally disinterested,” he said. “So you’re coming to the table not in the interests of your organisation, but in the interests of the place and its population. And that was a real moment that allowed us to begin health and social care integration. That led to us being one of the very few authorities in the country where the accountable officer of CCG is a council employee.”
It was an example which embodied other ingredients for success raised by our panellists. Among them was the idea of successful place-making being contingent on a shared language. Some argued that might mean ditching the ‘p’ word.
“There’s not a common understanding or a common description of what place is, and therefore it’s not always the most obvious starting point when you’re trying to engage partners,” argued South Norfolk’s Mr Sutterby.
“In my current role, I’ve kind of given up on trying to explain to my health and social care colleagues why housing is so important, because it kind of falls on deaf ears. If I try and turn that around and talk about my services in the context of frailty, I get somewhere quite quickly in the NHS world, because frailty is such a prevalent problem,” he said.
“If you can find that common language and describe the commonality of a problem in a way that others understand, it suddenly becomes a coalition of the willing. And I’m not always convinced place is the right way of doing that.”
Mr Sutterby explained he and his colleagues tried to think “holistically” around a person when it came to place-making. “How do we improve someone’s community and someone’s home environment? We try to convene partnerships around those sort of holistic issues, because at that level they become meaningful to everybody.”
This sort of place leadership often feels like it “most snugly” sits in local government, he said. But he also argued that authorities shouldn’t necessarily assume they should lead on this agenda.
“I think it’s justified that in a lot of cases the local authority is seen to take on that leadership role as an organisation.”
Simone Russell, director of housing and communities at Welwyn Hatfield BC
“The important thing is the outcome. It’s making progress and doing things for the greater good, and if it happens to be leadership coming from other quarters, then so be it. Our role, I would suggest, is looking for areas where there’s a deficiency in leadership and trying to step into those areas to make things progress – but not always assuming that mantle either.”
The extent to which local government should and perceives itself to be the leader on place provoked some debate. For Simone Russell, director of housing and communities at Welwyn Hatfield BC, the unique quality of the local authority in this context is that it has a democratic mandate. And that’s a distinction, she said, that shouldn’t be ignored.
“I think ultimately there does come a time when someone does have to take that leadership role,” said Ms Russell. “I think it’s justified that in a lot of cases the local authority is seen to take on that leadership role as an organisation.”
She suggested too that it was crucial to acknowledge what partners could and couldn’t do. “They may only be able to do so much within their remit. So it’s about trying to be proactive to try and come up with a joint solution, and not just expecting one of your partners is going to have the answers and be able to deliver everything, because I think that can create a lot of tension and conflict.”
It was a point with which Mr Stott of South Ribble concurred, reporting such understanding had been central to the development of the local community strategy.
“[We are] not expecting all partners to be involved in everything – particularly the private sector, because at the end of the day they’ve got their own businesses to run,” he said. “By having a very clear approach within that strategy around themes or particular areas, you use the right people in the right place at the right time. It’s how you communicate and how you work with your stakeholders.”
And communication was certainly another secret ingredient emphasised in place making success . For Tim Pitts, managing partner at Agilisys, getting it right means harnessing the power of data.
“If you really understand who everyone is in your particular location, and you can understand what’s the best or most effective way of communicating with them, what’s the best channel to use, you’ve a far greater chance of success of tackling many of the fundamental challenges I think we’ve all got,” he said.
They may have cited different views on some points, but there was one clear area of agreement during the debate: local government is central to place-making. And, argued Mr Tuddenham, it could be that now is a particularly good point to advance the agenda.
“If ever there’s a time when local areas need to convene better and together, it’s now,” he argued. “Because we’ve got a national government that is distracted. We’ve got a little bit of uncertainty and I think restlessness. And also I think, increasingly, a despondency in our communities about politics and the political environment at a national level.
“So I think this is a time for us to step up, to rediscover our role in our place and why local government exists.”