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Solace blog

14th May 2015

A future for local government: “This is what we need”

So, now we know. Cameron, Osborne, Clarke, David, Hunt, and Morgan: the Dirty Half Dozen of central government. And, now that we have a majority administration, the airwaves are already peppered with the rhetoric of “revolution” (Osborne) and “significant changes” (David). A bit like a normal day in Birmingham then!

And in facing and engaging with this brave new world, rather than ask “what can we expect?” let’s state “this is what we need”.

The starting point, for me, must be clarity on the scale and scope of local government – i.e. what are we here for? The last five years were an experiment in un-tempered downsizing by a Secretary of State who loved localism but was out of love with local government. No-one in Westminster or Whitehall really made the effort to be strategic about our future purpose – and the result after five years is that we face the prospect of not having enough money and yet still having to do everything that we used to simply because the only plan was to diminish us – literally and spiritually.

Allied to the critical task of working with us to agree what local government is for during the next period (five years; ten years?), we must persuade Greg Clarke that we have to have the long-overdue reform of funding. There is no qualification under the sun that can equip a chief executive to understand the means by which his or her council is funded. Therefore, we must further increase the pressure on DCLG (and HMT) to link a review of our purpose with a comprehensive and comprehensible reform of local government funding. That would be a “significant change”.

And talk of a future funding formula leads neatly to the Barnett Formula which leads neatly to the “devolution revolution” that, as I type, George Osborne is heralding. If I have heard correctly, the Queen’s Speech will include a Cities Devolution Bill, expressly designed to enable the Greater Manchester Mayoral model to proceed, unlocking the government’s intention to bestow largesse on the northern powerhouse in the form of greater (nay, radical) control over transport, housing, skills and health – all wrapped up in a contract that requires a range of public sector reforms that will deliver a positive return to the Treasury. What we need to ensure is that, through this Bill, devolution is for available to all, that it is flexible, and that it is for real. Cities should be the economic engine rooms of the country, but growth and reform will also require strong partnerships between cities and their neighbours, whilst “county regions” in their own right deserve the opportunity to prove their case in driving growth. Perhaps more importantly, our devolution argument needs to tackle the biggest drag of all on a real deal – the word “central” in central government. If the
revolution is to be true, then we need to make the case for sub-national control over policy-making and (property) taxraising powers as a minimum. Not devo-max, but devo-real!

Whilst we’re talking about elephants in the room, a few words on health and social care. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the benefits of integration if it helps invest in upstream prevention and early intervention in the home and community. But let’s not kid ourselves, there just isn’t enough money in the system and recent funding decisions in favour of the NHS are welcome but do nothing to acknowledge, let alone address, the long-forecast and now looming crisis in the resourcing of adult social care. I’ve lost count of how many £billions the projected 2020 funding gap now is, but that doesn’t matter – the figure is simply huge and growing. If the new government is to be truly radical, then it must address the long term funding of health and care services before we spend our last few pounds defending ourselves against the inevitable deluge of judicial reviews that are destined to come. If a measure by which we judge civilised society (British Values anyone?) is the way we treat the most vulnerable in society, then tackling this issue must rank amongst the highest of priorities.

And finally, for now, a few words about children and young people. We have to do something urgently about a service construct locked into a past paradigm that just doesn’t work well enough anymore. It grieves me to be so strident – I was DCS after all (Judas, Judas, some will be crying). But children’s services aren’t what they used to be and can’t be again for the foreseeable future. Consequently, we need to work with Nicky Morgan and Ed Timpson on a realistic model for the long term. A model that has flexibility in function, form, leadership, and governance but is, above all, strategic, coherent and affordable – i.e. costed. And linked to this reframing has to be a root and branch review and reform of regulation and inspection. It seems to me that the only organisation that doesn’t know that Ofsted is a busted flush when it comes to its role in the assessment and improvement of children’s services is Ofsted itself.

That’s why we must continue to work with the LGA and ADCS on a different way of inspecting – and of beefing up sector-led improvement.

So, as a Society, we have to rise to the challenges by formulating our own solutions and working hard with the new (and old) ministers to shape a future for local government in which there is clarity of purpose and the means to deliver on it. As Terry Pratchett once wrote “Carpe Jugulum”. Let’s act.

Mark Rogers, President, Solace Group and Chief Executive, Birmingham City Council