“Local Government should flex its muscles and move purposely forward”

2011 was quite a year for local government and one which many would wish to forget though the implications of the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review will hang heavy in the air for many a year to come.  Since which the messages coming from Whitehall have turned from the appearance of charm, collaborative spirit and the collegiate to a dogged political determination of doing it my way without any regard of the consequences.  Reform has been based less on hard evidence more by the limited personal experiences of Ministers backed by ideological convictions and occasionally, and sadly, some petty prejudices.

Though to be fair to the national politicians they felt, in their opinion, that they had no choice. Given the scale of the cuts which had to made (even under Labour they would have been big) they felt this couldn’t been achieve through partnership and keep the public onside at the same time; and having read Tony Blair’s autobiography they have taken to heart that reform had to be achieved as soon as the Coalition Government was out of the traps and within the first term. Or maybe I am being too fair to them?

Nonetheless, when the private sector did not miraculously bring about growth and employment in response to simply cutting the size of the state we saw much of the architecture pulled down during 2010 put back together again in 2011. Albeit, with different names and changes in design which would have happened in any case. So the Future Jobs Fund became the Youth Contract and Total Place was replaced by Community Budgets with match funding and earmarked central bidding funds becoming the new Local Area Agreements as “destructive localism” gave way to “guided localism”. At best we have lost 18 precious months without any lessons neither learnt nor accepted. The worst case will have long lasting consequences. We wait for David Cameron’s take on this when he comes around to putting pen to paper following a multi-million pound advance.

The truth is local authorities with local partners can do community budgeting without the interference from Whitehall; they don’t need to wait for the Treasury to re-shape PFI to introduce new approaches to lever in private investment.  They can re-shape priority procurement markets and not have those priorities determined for them by the Cabinet Office. Their local and national relationship with the business sector, the NHS and voluntary sector does not have to be rooted via Whitehall. And, they don’t need to chase around for Whitehall’s blessing nor small pots of cash especially when the conditions placed upon them are too strident or where they do not align with local community (as opposed to national ideological) priorities. It is not just me saying this. It is also the same said national politicians (well almost); though some Whitehall civil servants may feel differently.

While I recognise that all too often local authorities might find their efforts are overwhelmed by Government polices pulling in different directions. Nonetheless, in the year ahead I would like to see local government draw confidence from the fact that its ability to generate leadership capability is continuingly been used to plug that gap in Whitehall; that it has been them and not Whitehall that has led the way on the preventative agenda and countless other things; and that in its engagement with Central Government it is able represent with authority what local communities are really calling for.

I am not arguing that local doesn’t need national Government. Or denying sometimes Whitehall does know best or can facilitate things. Rather, the Town Hall and, the Local Government sector as a whole can be more confident in its own abilities. Therefore local
government should and can stride forward with real purpose both locally and nationally in 2012.