A lack of local leadership

26 Nov 13

The political leadership in our town and county halls too often undermines collaboration with local businesses and the voluntary and community sector. Leaders must up their game or consider their positions

There is a growing consensus that a leading, indeed perhaps the principal role of local government, should be to assume ‘community leadership’ and ‘shape their places’.

Local government has a democratic legitimacy and accountability arising from the ballot box and a universal franchise. And it has legal powers that enable it to act on behalf of the local community unless otherwise legally forbidden to do so. Local authorities have also recognised the benefits that initiatives such as ‘Total Place’ and ‘Community Budgets’ can bring to achieving outcomes for local communities, especially given austerity and the harsh impact of government cuts.

Moreover, there is a growing recognition that many complex social, economic and environmental challenges can only be successfully addressed through collaboration of public agencies, local businesses and the voluntary and community sector.

Local government, as the leader of ‘place’, has a duty, and responsibility to create the conditions for effective collaboration across the sectors, and to facilitate such through excellent political leadership. This is not about local government commanding others – rather, it is about respecting partners and adopting a collaborative leadership approach with vision and clarity of the necessary outcomes.

Many local authorities are also coming to the view that they need to develop a different relationship with their staff and with local citizens – be they service users, taxpayers, or people who live or work in the area. This must, necessarily, lead to greater empowerment of staff at all levels across local government. And it should lead to a greater emphasis on working ‘with’ users, citizens and communities to co-design and co-produce services aimed at securing jointly agreed outcomes.

Localism is about much more than the transfer of powers, responsibility, accountability and resources from Whitehall to town or county hall. To be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’, it needs to be about a further transfer of powers, responsibility, accountability and resources from local authorities to community, parish and town councils, communities, and the voluntary and community sector organisations.

It means adopting ‘whole place’ and ‘whole system’ approaches to issues, and with a resolutely ‘outcome’ focus. It requires aligning all policies and actions, including procurement, to secure positive outcomes for the local place.

Local government is changing irrevocably, and the current and impending public expenditure cuts will force further dramatic change. Every local authority will make its own decisions on the nature of that change, and, ultimately, these are local political decisions that must be made by councillors and leaders following consultation with local people, local businesses, the local voluntary and community sector and public sector partners.

However, I suggest that in terms of thrust of direction, local authorities and their political and executive leaders face radically stark choices – of which the most binary are between adopting a defeatist victim mentality, or reinvigorating themselves by adopting progressive, outward behaviours and the approaches described above.

Community leadership requires ‘bold’ visionary political leadership. Equally, the current economic, social and financial conditions and challenges require effective and creative political leadership.

There are examples of excellent practice with some impressive local leaders from all political parties. However, in far too many places local political leadership is failing to rise to deliver, is effectively undermining collaboration, and thereby preventing the achievement of the outcomes that local people need and aspire to. This should be happening, even without the cuts agenda.

The government is both helping and hindering the place agenda. Localism and the reductions in much of the previous government’s over-prescriptive, centrally driven performance management and targets; community budgets; the general power of competence; transfer of public health back to local government together with health and well-being boards; and other measures are, very positive.

However, the severe and disproportionate cuts in financial support to local government; more academies and free schools; the police and crime commissioners creating a different relationship with the police; NHS reorganisation; and continual ministerial attacks on the ethics and performance of local government are very unhelpful.

Nonetheless, local government has to find ways of working in the current political and structural environments. It has to do so strategically and it has to be pragmatic.

Of course, it can and should make the case for new arrangements and for changes in national policy. Indeed, it has perhaps been too quiet on these issues for too long. It has to step up and challenge as well as advocating for stronger localism in the context of a democratic state based on a sense of equity and fairness.

Local government has to recognise that it has not had direct control over schools for decades and should identify how it can form a partnership with academies and other state schools. It can design and argue long term for a strategic quality assurance role, as well as one that plans places and provision locally.

It also has to attract all schools to want to work with local government, the wider public sector and communities and to open their resources to communities. This can and should be done now whilst some other changes will require either a new government or a change in the current government’s policies.

Equally, local authorities have to ensure that their local PCCs (who are democratically elected too, whatever the turnout), as well as senior police officers, are fully engaged in local place shaping and holistic solutions for communities, citizens and businesses.

Similar approaches will be needed to build relations and secure outcomes with the various NHS bodies, housing associations and other local public services. There has to be recognition that the voluntary and community sector has a representative role to play, complementing but not usurping the rights and position of elected politicians.

Finally, place shaping and community leadership can be greatly enhanced when all public agencies and their professionals are focused on people and communities; and on outcomes, rather than holding onto existing services and other arrangements simply because they exist and people are comfortable with them. Only that which is appropriate and maximises impact should be pursued.

Politicians have to understand the impact of their decisions and actions, including planned cuts across the whole system, and not just for their own immediate interests. Above all, local government has an opportunity and arguably a duty to persuade the other public agencies and their own to align: strategic objectives; budgeting; public engagement, consultation and involvement; strategic commissioning and procurement; and partnering with local businesses and the voluntary and community sector.

Local government political and executive (but most especially, political leaders) must demonstrate their position as community leaders, shaping their places and offering protection and hope to local communities – or they should consider their positions.

  • John Tizard

    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third, union and academic organisations. He now holds several non-executive, trustee and chair roles in the VCS and arts sectors. He was a senior executive both at Capita and Scope, and is a former joint council leader

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