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Solace blog

8th January 2016

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year!

I hope you’ve managed to get some much-needed and well-deserved R&R over the festive season. I was lucky enough to have a “baby’s first Christmas” with my youngest son, daughter-in-law and our new(ish) grandson.

However, I realise that I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to play Father Christmas (no, there aren’t any pictures). In contrast, a good number of you will have been dealing with Mother Nature at her most destructive and upsetting. On behalf of those of us spared the responsibility of dealing with flooding and its aftermath, I would like to praise the commitment and compassion shown by the many colleagues who’ve been working all hours to support those communities affected (13,000 homes underwater at some point over the last few weeks). Public service at its best.

And on the subject of public servants going the extra mile, let me add my personal congratulations to all those – councillors, officers and, above all, citizens – who have been recognised in the New Year’s Honours for their exceptional contributions to the communities they serve and/or live in. Well done and enjoy your much-deserved trip to the Palace.

Other than the new boots and panties that a number of you now will no doubt be eyeing up, what else can we look forward to in 2016?

Well, uppermost in my mind at the time of writing is the continued unfolding of the government’s policy on housing. The focus on tackling the long-standing, indeed now endemic, housing supply crisis is welcome, and SOLACE made an important contribution to the debate in December with the publication of its own position statement on this policy area. However, it looks like we’ll need to be making almost continuous revisions to this document right up until the time the Bill receives Royal Assent! Amendments tabled only this week have made us all hot and bothered (again) as we try to understand whether perceived good intentions will actually turn out to have malign consequences.

Never far from our thoughts (sad, how sad) will be the even bigger issue of devolution. In the second half of last year, many of us went down with a virulent dose of HRF (Horseguards Road Fever), ensuring 2015 was the Year of Expectation. However, as the drugs start to work and our temperatures fall, so 2016 presents itself as the Year of Realisation. The excitement of deal-making is being replaced by the more sobering challenges of working out just how much devolution we actually negotiated, whilst also undertaking intensive delivery planning, doing some implementation (heaven forbid) and addressing the accompanying opportunity/threat of upscaling our growth and reform functions to reflect the new sub-regional geographies and partnerships we have signed up to.

There’s undoubtedly much more that will reveal itself to us in the months ahead, not least the double-edged sword that is 100% business rate localisation. Again, a policy welcome in principle, but one that also has a big Parental Guidance label on it saying “be careful what you wish for”. And, whilst we all look ahead to the various engagements and consultations that will be the process by which light is eventually shed on the implications, right now we are all – crash, bang, wallop – in the middle of trying to assemble proposals for the next three years that will lead us to being
transformed councils whose new operating models can thrive in the age of perma-austerity. An unpleasant knock-on consequence here in Birmingham is that we gave our staff their annual s188 Christmas pressie with an expectation that the budget to be set in March will confirm the need to say farewell to another 10% (1200) of our most precious resource – people.

But, like our new year’s dietary resolutions, we must take a balanced and considered approach to the coming weeks and months. Councils are undoubtedly going through protracted interesting times but, as we should know well by now, this presents opportunities as well as threats. It’s not every job you take that gives the chance to undertake a long term, comprehensive organisational and system redesign and all that goes with that – most notably, revisiting the leadership task to ensure we are fit-for-purpose.

As chief executives and senior managers in local government, we are – in support of our politicians and the communities they represent – charged with the amazing responsibility of being place leaders. We need to use all the skills, knowledge, understanding and, above all, the moral purpose that underpins our public service ethic to ensure that our citizens still get the best deal possible from the cash we still have across our local public service economies.

So, going back to devolution, it will be essential to keep front and centre the symbiotic relationship between growth and reform and to resurrect or revitalise the notion of whole place budgets which can collectively serve to make the greatest impact on the most important outcomes for local people. In the mad dashes for devolution that we have been involved in (guilty as charged m’lud),

I still consider that there needs to be a much more collaborative approach within and across county and city regions to ensure that there is a core devolution compact that benefits all. I know that I’ve peddled this idea before, but I believe strongly that, in concert with the LGA and others, we should be undertaking some form of collective bargaining – as well as retaining the right to add bespoke elements that reflect the particular needs, characteristics and competencies of individual areas.

But let’s turn (briefly, I promise) to matters closer to home and, therefore, much more in our gift. SOLACE relies on committed, active and sustained membership because it is only through that that the Society can progress its three core objectives:

i) being the leadership body for chief executives and senior managers that has access to the best development opportunities available:

ii) supporting councils’ professional leadership through effective policy development and interpretation and, as appropriate, lobbying of government and other bodies in the best interests of the communities we serve; and

iii) ensuring that local government and wider public services adhere to and promulgate the clearest and strongest of values possible, as expressed in our nascent code of ethics.

This is not passive work and I am so pleased to have seen the Society grow both in confidence and stature in the last couple of years. But we can get taller still and it should be our shared resolution in 2016 to build on the recent reforms to our own operating model by growing our membership even further, and all of us taking an active part in delivering the Society’s objectives and putting SOLACE firmly on the government’s radar as a committed, sometimes supportive, sometimes challenging, always intelligent and values-driven agent for good in the unending task of delivering the best possible outcomes for local people.

Anyway, enough of this.

I have one final and much more important axe to grind. Whichever one of you it was that impersonated me in the final MJ Soapbox of 2015, be certain of one thing. My wife will hunt you down and she will show no mercy.

Happy New Year indeed.

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