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The shape of things to come

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Local government reform, spurred on by the Localism Bill, is well into its first phase. But with councils still reeling from financial shock, there hasn’t been a great deal of discussion about the future role of councils.

Many share the sense that reform is not being driven by careful planning, as it was in the wholesale restructuring in 1974. In response, leading public sector figures are starting to ask broad questions about what local government is actually for nowadays, and where councils might end up in 10 years time.

The New Local Government Network’s recent report on Future Councils is one of a number of such initiatives. Director Simon Parker thinks the current whirlwind of change is “highly distracting”.  “Lots of councils are thinking about the future, but we want to pull together lots of conversations to look at the potential and the challenges,” he says. “We want a richer, more public debate.”

NLGN’s analysis follows on from work carried out by Max Wide, local government strategic development director at BT, who identified four general models to explain the different ways in which councils are restructuring.

“Localism is leading to an unplanned future, yes, but maybe that’s right in a way,” says Mr Wide. “A centralised approach to running local services has not delivered improved outcomes”

“It may be unplanned, but it is exciting. Many of these new council initiatives – ‘John Lewis’ councils or whatever it may be – are an attempt to re-think what the role of local government really is. Of course a lot of people are not comfortable with emergent ways of working because it challenges current ways of working. Concerns are also being raised that the public could become further disengaged from local democracy as a relatively unified model of local government fragments.

“Localism will change the dynamic between representative and participative democracy,” Mr Wide says. “Many councils are not sufficiently involved in enabling community debate. Localism can enhance participative democracy, but councils have to be willing, and have the funding and capacity to take it on.”

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, says the top-down reforms enacted nearly 40 years ago were very different. “We’ve gone from that world, which with the benefit of hindsight looks more like 1880 than it does today, through an extraordinary series of political and management revolutions,” he says. “In 1974 when people talked about local government, they meant the council. It then came to embrace an array of small local institutions that are not democratically elected, like schools and hospitals.

“Councils will continue to have a role in overseeing what’s delivered, but clearly they are not part of the command and control enterprise any more. We are moving from the Soviet Union to the United States, essentially.”

James Rogers is assistant director at Leeds City Council, which has become the first authority to set up its own commission on the future of local government. He believes councils should take a lead. “Whilst there have been many other debates on the future of local government services, these have tended to be issue or specific theme, such as adult social care,” he says.

Local authorities in Scotland are also undergoing a transformation, but the process is being handled very differently by the Scottish government. “There is perhaps a higher regard for public services in general,” says Richard Stiff, chief executive of Angus Council. “There is a healthy dialogue involving national and local government. Recent national reviews - the Christie Commission on public services and the McClelland report on ICT in the public sector for example - have helped to develop the national agenda for collaboration and redesign. I think councils are embracing this.”

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