Earlier this week Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government told the Commons’ public accounts committee that “local government is sustainable if the amount of resources available to it can deliver the statutory services which it is required to do”. She went to on to state that this “is what Parliament has laid out” so the view should not be solely attributed to the Permanent Secretary.
Putting to one side the complexity of deciding where statutory stops and non-statutory starts, and that this is – in my view – a deeply joyless view of the world, there are some fundamental problems with this interpretation of sustainability. First and foremost is that a statutory-only view of the world only does one thing in the long term – and that is drive up costs. That is not just in my experience, but in that of my colleagues, and in that of pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to in local government. Without demand management and behavioural interventions addressing issues early, people are just going to keep rolling through the door and requiring services.
This also raises a more fundamental question – and one that has been bothering many people for a long time. If lower funding is a given, and a statutory-only approach doesn’t work, then what is the future shape of local government?
In my view there has to be a radical change in what councils are and what they do. I suspect that deep down, every member and every officer know this. There are two possible routes to achieving this change.
The first route (and I fear the most common) is a slow sleepwalk into a different type of organisation. A cut here, a compromise there and maybe – maybe – an innovative programme or two. All of these elements can gradually change the shape of local services. However, the sustainability of this approach is precarious at best, and relies on luck rather than a joined-up approach.
The second route is to take a strategic, long-term view driven by a serious debate of what a council exists for. There have been numerous calls for a national debate on this question, but I believe this is wrong. The debate should be local. To use two local authorities from our recently published list of the Top 10 most productive councils as an example, what is right for Leicestershire almost certainly isn’t right for Havering. Of course, councils should look at and learn from what is happening elsewhere, and in fact that should be actively encouraged. Ultimately though, decisions need to be made locally by the people who know that area best.
Central government’s view of sustainable local government has been made disappointingly clear. It is time for members and officers across the country to decide what is the right for the communities they serve.