Vehicles for change

4 Nov 19

Councils can be powerful promoters of local economic development and social mobility. Here’s how

There are a number of compelling arguments why government policy should be reframed to give greater support to local authorities to carry out their wide range of essential statutory services.

First, local government is more efficient and achieves greater value for money than any alternative method of service delivery. Second, is its proven track record for experimentation and innovation. Third, is the capacity for councils up and down the country to act as an engine for change and encourage social mobility.

The joint report published by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, Elitist Britain 2019, draws attention to the over-representation of privately educated individuals in prominent positions in British society, including 59% of civil service permanent secretaries. The report concluded that this general picture can be seen throughout the upper echelons of the state. 

However, there is one exception. 
The report found that “only 9% of local council chief executives attended an independent school, broadly equivalent to the percentage who have done so in the country’s population overall and one of the lowest rates in this report”. 

This will come as no surprise to those of us who have spent our working lives in local government. Councils are places where individuals who have varying levels of academic achievement work together at all levels of seniority. In my 37 years in local government, working for eight local authorities in the East Midlands, East Anglia, Greater Manchester and London, I have never once known a decision about a staff appointment to be made on the basis of attendance or educational attainment at the “right” school, college or university. 

This is not as a consequence of conscious policymaking on the part of councils, or the adoption of targets or quotas. The identification of local government as the least elite component of our public sector apparatus is all the more remarkable because it is not an outcome that derives from an adopted strategy or direction. 

It is more powerful than this. Meritocracy in local government is deeply cultural and embedded, and is a function of the basic characteristics of municipalities. They are practical entities that prize competency in implementation above all other things. 

When it comes to staff appointments, including at the most senior levels, the capacity to get things done will nearly always take precedence over other factors, and certainly over paper qualifications and the social backgrounds that they typically reflect. (This is similarly true in the political process. The last prime minister not to have a university degree was John Major, who left school at 16 with three O-levels. It is no coincidence that his first taste of public life was as a Lambeth councillor and chair of the housing committee.)

Risks and brakes
This special and unique quality of local government is of particular interest to the UK as we prepare for the challenges ahead. Policymakers need to think deeply about how to address three long-term systemic risks and brakes on our success.

First is social mobility and the extent to which an individual’s life chances are determined by their social background. This injustice is manifested in many particular forms, notably in terms of the lack of opportunity for people from BAME communities. 

Second is our country’s economic productivity, which, while never distinguished, has deteriorated in recent years at an alarming rate. This is mainly because of the performance of local and regional economies outside London and the South East – a root cause of the lack of affordable housing, especially in the capital. 

And third is the climate change emergency, at last recognised as requiring a transformation in our approach to the design and implementation of policy. 

‘Meritocracy in local government is deeply cultural and embedded, and is a function of the basic characteristics of municipalities’

From the perspective of national government, steep reductions in grants to local authorities since 2010 have proven to be an expedient means of reducing public spending. From the perspective of local government, they have inevitably become a preoccupation, if not obsession, of councillors. However, austerity notwithstanding, it is becoming clear a decade on that, to address these three challenges, a different approach is needed. Not just in terms of policy direction, but in language and tone too. The reframing of policy that we seek must be based on a sound analysis of the challenges that we face as a country, and a realistic assessment of the contribution councils can make to tackling them. 

Councils are generally practical and durable entities that can expand rapidly to deliver national government programmes – for example, during the period from 1997 onwards – and can deflate rapidly to address the requirements of austerity, as in the period from 2010. (Even though, at its most bleak, our apparently powerless relationship to central government has come to resemble, in Gloucester’s words in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”)

Following a national conversation of nearly four years, which has focused on what for most people are abstruse and obscure arguments about Brexit (Northern Ireland backstop, anyone?), a huge pent-up demand exists to address goals that are actually relevant to people’s lives.

How can the fortunes of our areas be improved to achieve an attractive quality of life, and fulfil people’s aspirations? How can we generate local wealth to fund excellent public services? And how does local government develop the means to do these things?

Although Office for National Statistics figures show that the number of people employed in the public sector as a whole is similar to the 1970s and 1980s, the number working in local government has fallen dramatically. The vast majority of job losses in the public sector since 2009 have been in local government. Council employee numbers have fallen by 406,000 over the past five years, while the civil service has increased by a similar figure and is at its highest level since records began in 1999. 

While we have debated localism, the trend – relentlessly and consistently – has been in the opposite direction. Follow the money, and follow the headcount. We have been talking an ambitious talk of localism and walking the dreary walk of nationalisation. 

Sir Michael Lyons’ 2004 review proposing the localisation of 20,000 Whitehall jobs remains an inspiration – as does his 2004/2007 review of the form, function and funding of local government. In the 15 years since, we have discovered the full extent of disenchantment with remote decision-making, together with changes most evident in the retail sector that have led to deteriorating town centres and diminishing prospects for high-quality jobs and opportunities. 

We have also discovered the full extent of the climate emergency, which has provided the impetus to reorientate policy to provide local opportunities for work and leisure that are not dependent upon long-distance commuting. 

‘A huge pent-up demand exists to address goals that are actually relevant to people’s lives’

Grounded in reality
Councils are the most plausible institutions to advance optimistic, aspirational policies – especially as our daily work grounds us in the practical realities of local services and communities.  Councils can provide the political, high-profile articulation of this goal and correlate it locally to specific circumstances and realities. Many already run highly successful, in-house employment programmes – for example, Wandsworth’s Work Match service that links jobseekers to local employers – and are able to extend this vision into the daily work of the council. We work closely with schools and colleges, employers, housebuilders and economic partnerships to this end. 

It is also instructive to study the most recent reforms of the NHS, which reframe the health service away from a preoccupation with individual institutions towards an examination of the health and social care system as a whole. These aim to strengthen the governance of the wider system and ensure that individual institutions are actors that play their part within this framework. This is not so far from the “place-based” thinking that developed in the years after Sir Michael Lyons’ reviews.
We need to do three things. 

First, we must make the case for social mobility and tackling regional economic imbalance being at the centre of the government’s programme. We need to show how opportunities to learn, develop and excel within a locality can support climate change strategies by reducing the need for long-distance commuting, especially to London. 

Second, we must show that municipal government is an attractive and compelling apparatus through which to deliver these ambitions – in areas such as economic development, skills, schools and further education. 

And third we need to act upon the ambition of the first chief executive of the Local Government Association, Sir Brian Briscoe, who described his new organisation as being “the place where future local government legislation is written”. 
That’s now a task for us all. 

Paul Martin is chief executive at the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond upon Thames

  • Paul Martin

    Paul Martin is chief executive at the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond upon Thames

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