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Speaking out on 2008

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In 2008 local government will face many challenges not least how it will engage with the central government agenda and how its role will develop. Here, key figures look at what the future may hold.

Sir Simon Milton (Con), chairman, Local Government Association

This year provides the greatest window of opportunity in over half a century for councils to fulfil their proper, powerful roles as the people’s champions in the local state.

Councils can claim a great deal of the credit. Recognised by the Treasury as the most efficient part of government, and with a decade of exceptional improvement behind us, we are strong and confident, and the case for localism is growing in popularity.

So why should 2008 be any different? It is because, in terms of public services, economics and party politics, we are in a greater state of flux than any time since the mid-1990s.

Spending in public services has created improvement, but the results do not reflect the huge investment made, and the public is calling for better and more personal services. As public spending is reined in, and global trends cool our markets, the public is looking for job security and a lighter and more efficient public purse.

It was clear that Tony Blair’s departure heralded a new era. The dramatic swings in the opinion polls over the last part of the year were in turns encouraging and dispiriting for both main parties, but it will be a while yet before they consolidate their positions and allow public opinion to settle.

'This is our opportunity'

That is our opportunity. All party leaders know that electoral success lies in capturing the centre ground. However, they also know that modern politics requires a sense of change and momentum and the belief that they understand the aspirations of ‘real people’. Mr Blair’s political legacy was a puzzle for all sides to solve: you have to keep moving, but not to the right or to the left so where do you go?

My answer is simple. Put people first. Shift the momentum of politics downwards to the places where we all live. Devolve unwieldy, impersonal central government, and design and deliver public services at the level where we can understand local needs and ambitions. Pursue economic growth, jobs and enterprise at the local level, and drive our nation’s competitiveness from every part of the country, rather than from the wealthiest corner. Where the needs of people and communities are concerned, take the remote power of Westminster and Whitehall, and put it into the hands of the people and their democratic representatives.

Some argue that we should use 2008 to quietly consolidate the achievements of 2007. I am determined that we push onwards. We must challenge ourselves ever harder to improve the lives of our residents, and before British politics settles down we must make a strong, hard case that the success of any future government depends on their ability to put people first, and devolve real power to real people.

Chris Leslie, director, New Local Government Network

With a tough financial settlement forcing councils to bear down on inefficiencies and make tough choices on council tax, 2008 looks set to be a very challenging year for councillors, leaders and chief executives alike. Local authorities will need to dig deeper than ever to find the ingenuity to squeeze every penny from finite resources.

There will undoubtedly be some fundamental decisions about how certain discretionary services can continue at all and local politicians will need to summon all their skills to keep local residents on board with their choices.

Whitehall will need to find new ways of doing deals with councils if they are to be sufficiently incentivised to hit common goals. The local area agreement process will need to deliver the goods especially quickly, given the prime minister’s need to prove that public services can improve markedly during this prolonged pre-election period.

Comprehensive area assessments will hopefully mean that chief executives become best friends with their counterparts in local primary care trusts, colleges and the police, as their success becomes mutually dependent on the fortunes and performance of all local public services within the community.

New partnerships

Councils will also need to get into new partnerships with their neighbouring authorities if they aren’t to miss the boat on multi-area agreements, which are already firming up existing alliances.

While the duties to co-operate between local agencies will need to be tested, there are many people asking whether the 2007 Local Government Act will make a sufficient difference to good governance, strong leadership and accountability.

The wider policy agenda is often set by the national media and central government and 2008 will see councils asked to lead on areas traditionally outside their remit, especially on carbon reduction and climate change, and on more astute management of new migration and demographic change.

On housing and planning, councils own the ransom strip between ministerial ambitions for new affordable homes and the ability to deliver the goods. Can councils finally convince government that they can offer quicker and clever solutions to otherwise intractable problems? This is the central question for the year ahead.

As the opposition parties start talking about localism more vocally, ministers will need to act swiftly by delegating leadership towards the front line. There are limits for the Department for Communities & Local Government, who are friends of this agenda, but are battling against the inertia of more traditionally centralist departments of state. So, 2008 will be challenging for local government, but perhaps even more challenging for Whitehall and Westminster.

Steve Reed (Lab), leader, Lambeth LBC

We often lament the fact that too many of our citizens feel local government is remote. A key challenge is making ourselves more relevant, and that means involving local people in tackling the issues that matter most to them where they live.

Here in Lambeth we’ve seen a 100% increase in gun-enabled crime over the past year. The problem is linked to youth gangs involved in drug dealing and other anti-social behaviour. Our Guns & Gangs Commission, set up last summer, will publish a report this month that recommends interventions in five areas: family support; wider access to jobs and training; more support for schools; better youth services and peer mentoring; and supporting communities to find solutions to their own problems.

Alongside that, I would add tougher enforcement against those responsible for the violence. We must tackle the criminals while tackling the poverty that breeds criminals. In many inner cities this complex issue, rooted in access to opportunity, sits right at the top of the agenda.

Help people stay healthy

At the other end of the age spectrum, our ageing population presents real challenges. Councils are restricting access to older people’s care services as costs rise faster than inflation and the number of people needing support grows way ahead of central government funding.

We need to re-balance funding away from helping those older people who have already become seriously ill in favour of funding services that will help them stay healthier and live more independently. The challenge is how to switch funding away from the health service and into social care while maintaining the balance between the two.

In these and other important areas, we face a challenge in finding more creative, community-based and cost-effective ways of providing services. Some of the new youth services we need will be better provided by faith and voluntary groups that already have deep links and high levels of trust within our most deprived communities. By encouraging services to be delivered in local neighbourhoods, with local control, we will find ways to make what we do more relevant as well as more effective. It also forces us to focus on the service user, the citizen, rather than the provider.

We’re often told that people are no longer interested in civic engagement. But in reality, I believe they’ve just moved away from the old monolithic town hall towards local communities they prefer to identify with. The challenge for local government is to go there with them.

These issues will be discussed at the NLGN Annual Conference, run in partnership with LGC. It will be held on 22 January at the Church House Conference Centre, London. More details at: www.nlgn-annual2008.co.uk

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