As someone who believes local government can be hugely important force for a better, fairer society, I am passionate about the health of the sector. In my working life I am constantly pushing for progressive change, sometimes by defending local government, but much more often by encouraging the kind of restless ambition amongst Councils that I believe leads to excellence. But for the first time in a long while, I am concerned the sector as whole is moving backwards and I feel its right to say so. The way I feel about this can’t be pinned on one factor, and perhaps the best way I can articulate it is with reference to an historical figure. Warren Harding is popularly thought of as one of the worst ever American presidents (1921-3). There are those that will dispute this perception, but his legacy is not served well by perhaps his most famous exhortation – his call for a return to ‘normalcy’ in his presidential campaign. For those of us that want to see reform and progress, a return to ‘normalcy’ is at best, vapid and at worst, a little bit sinister. It conjures a past that never was, some idealised notion of ‘how things should be’. It becomes sinister when we realise that the past harboured evil as well as good, guilty secrets as well as happy memories. And that is why the rubric for most political leaders is a positive vision of the future, not a throwback to a bygone age.
I fear, however, that local government is in ‘return to normalcy’ territory. Its future is being defined by the retrograde and the negative – by what it was and not what it might be. No-one in a position of strategic authority has yet – for my money – articulated a compelling vision and a strategy for change. Instead we see an set of unconnected forces at play; including:
- The Big Society Agenda and ensuing initiatives (most of which are promised but have not arrived in time to be helpful)
- The noise created by the Secretary of State’s whimsical pronouncements (defined beautifully by the weekly bin collection fiasco)
- The disparate measures within the localism bill
- The continuing muddle of how local government will relate to healthcare
- The dismantling of sector-led improvement initiatives (throwing away much of the good with some of the bad)
- A collection of cuts, many of which are borne of opportunism and politics and not strategy
- The efforts of many Town Halls to make difficult improvement and transformation decisions in the teeth of attacks from government
Whether Eric Pickles is a new Warren Harding is perhaps an unfair question to raise in relation to both gentlemen. Personalities and politics aside, what I do want to make clear is that there is a failure of vision and strategy for local government by central government. Cuts are clearly a preoccupation – but in and of itself, reducing spend is not a plausible substitute for a vision of change. What is needed is a positive sense of what local government is for and a description of what it will look like – accompanied by clear thinking about how the levers of reform fit together. It is too late to rescue Warren Harding’s reputation, but not too late for this government to create its legacy for local government. Let’s just hope we are not returning, but actually going somewhere.
Alex Khaldi is a Director at IMPOWER. To contact him to discuss this blog or any aspect of our work, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0776 413 2182