What, asks Paul Scully, is holding local authorities back?
Local government has been at the sharp end of the Government’s drive to cut the structural deficit, with a further decrease in their Settlement Funding Assessment of 13.9% in the 2015/16 local government settlement. This is at a time the Localism Act led the way in pushing decision making closer to the people affected. By the very nature of localism, councils responded in different ways to the added responsibilities, challenges and threats that were brought about by devolving power. The challenge, especially for the Conservative Party, who holds 40% of the total number of council seats, is to be able to recruit, train, equip and retain the very best people at a local level who can think strategically and make the most of the opportunities on offer through devolved power.
At the heart of Conservatism is the drive to greater freedom, trusting people with meaningful choices and decision-making rather than a centralised state run by diktat. Localism offers that opportunity but is mistrusted by some local authorities for two reasons: lack of vision and a roadblock to further devolution.
Localism is not clearly defined. The underlying premise, known as the General Power of Competence, allows councils to do “anything that individuals generally may do”. Essentially this removes the restriction that permitted local authorities only to do things for which they had specific statutory powers. Previously anything else was deemed to be ultra vires. This leaves an incredibly wide area for councils to cast their net. Officers who are used to running de facto branch offices of central government and councillors who act as the patricians of old will likely miss opportunities that will be snapped up by their more entrepreneurial counterparts in a neighbouring authority.
While many local authorities welcome the opportunities afforded by a localist agenda, some are concerned when decision making is pushed further down than the local authority or they are bypassed entirely. Some are happy for devolution to come to a juddering halt at the town hall. Many of the most successful reforms to public services under the Coalition, continued with the Conservative government, have councils as a partner or facilitator rather than as provider. Free schools and academies have cut out the middle management of local education authorities, clinical commissioning groups work alongside ‘health and wellbeing boards’ in areas such as public health.
There are hundreds of councillors up and down the country who will not be fazed by these changes, seeing them as a real opportunity to get stuck in and shape their local area as councils move from a large organisation that provides everything, to a sleeker outfit that takes a strategic lead. However, there will be some councillors who risk being left behind without the comfort of a blueprint to follow. This can be masked in the short term in a local authority with a set of top-quality officers but will soon be found out. The role of councillors has to change to reflect the moving landscape of local government.
The Conservative Party needs to make sure it is at the forefront of that change to ensure that there is no hiatus between the change in greater local decision-making and having councillors in place that can fully grasp the opportunities that this brings.
Conservative thinking need not be limited to policy; our approach, critical thinking and effective system planning, is just as crucial in delivering a Conservative agenda. We believe in the free market, free choice and trusting people. Smaller government would naturally lead to individuals and community groups taking greater responsibility; our instinct to lower taxes whenever possible stems from a belief that people can make better decisions as to how to spend their own money than government. Similarly, pushing decisionmaking closer to those affected is a freemarket approach to governance.
In order to make this work without an anarchic free-for-all or a slow retreat back to Whitehall centralisation, we need local representatives that understand this and can make it work for their local area. In the same way that turnout is often low for local elections, many local associations find it hard to recruit new talent. Plenty of people do not see the local council as being an important part of their life, despite it being in control of most day to day, visible local services. Greater responsibility can lead to making the role more attractive, although that responsibility will be strategic, bringing together public services such as the police, the local hospital, CCGs, academy schools, charities, community groups, local businesses et al, all to help shape the locale. That is not an easy thing to manage. It is far easier to nod through a committee report written by the Chief Executive after asking a few searching questions.
In 2007, Stephen Greenhalgh, then leader of Hammersmith & Fulham council wrote a pamphlet, Mind of a manager, soul of a leader, art of a politician, taking a wellknown business self-improvement book and adding the third strand to best describe a truly effective councillor. Those three points should be the starting requirement of the selection process for council candidates with as wide a net cast as possible to encourage original thinking in local government.
If localism is to be realised, if local economies are to be reinvigorated and if good quality public services are to be assured, then the role of the councillor must be more positively supported by giving their recruitment, preparation and skill development greater attention. Tomorrow’s Councillor, a 2012 report that I co-authored with Christina Dykes (and published on the ConservativeHome website) got its name through our belief that tomorrow’s councillors should be able to walk tall. Then their worth will be seen in its true light as keeper of public services, shaper of the local area, and enabler and voice of local communities.
Councillors should be fully supported as the first line political operators that they are. In return, councillors should be more proactive in looking for opportunities, be risk-aware rather than risk-averse, and be agents of change rather than being regulators of change. There are many examples of such work; there are many, many talented and dedicated councillors working all hours for their community. The challenge for those leading council groups or preparing to select the next slate of Conservative council candidates is to keep the pace in moving forward, look ahead to the next twenty years and help keep Conservatives at the front of the pack in shaping a successful new era of local government in what will be for some time to come a tough environment in which to work.
Paul Scully was first elected Member of Parliament for Sutton & Cheam in the May 2015 Election.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 01/03/2016.