Conservative councils can lead the way in innovation, says Francis Davis
On 20th November, the first think tank for the South will be launched from Winchester, that great city of Wessex. The new ‘Southern Policy Centre’ will welcome MPs, businesspeople, academics and council leaders of every political persuasion (including the CEO of Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership and the leader of Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead council) to explore what the future of the South holds now that Scotland has gained ‘devo-max’.
The keynote speakers will be Labour’s Shadow Infrastructure Minister, Lord Adonis, and the man who is credited with having delivered much of the Coalition’s passion for decentralisation, Cabinet Minister Rt Hon Greg Clark MP . But this will not be a parochial conversation because what the South does and says is as crucial to our UK future as the passions of the four million Scots. New thinking in the South, and learning across English boundaries, can add zest to the potential of every locality. The irony is that Scotland and London receive more public funds than the English counties. Yet it is in these counties that some of the most creative responses to fresh challenges have been emerging.
Take Havant and East Hampshire on the South Coast, who have pooled their management team, created an award winning public services hub to co-locate staff and client care and in the process saved millions. Look to Councillor Paul Carter and the leadership of Kent County Council who have restructured around tough financial demands while also developing fresh directions both for the local economy and local health. On the coast again Cllr Sean Woodward has been so effective in combining his roles on his local LEP , on the County council and as Leader of Fareham District that he has landed an almost unique financial settlement for his voters. But perhaps one of the most creative of all areas to learn from has been the work championed by Cheshire West and Chester Council in the politically sensitive – and crucial - English North West.
Cheshire West is saving £50 million in five years. Talk to Steve Robinson, the Council’s CEO, and it becomes clear that this has only been possible via the detailed graft of unlocking huge savings from intense collaboration between stakeholders like local government, the police, education services and others, plus strong political backing from Council Leader, Mike Jones. Arriving in Chester from Stoke, Robinson introduced a form of place-based budgeting even before Labour’s invention of ‘TotalPlace' which sought to pool some Whitehall allocations locally to make scarce resources go further. Over the last four years Robinson's Cheshire West and Chester , has been one of the elect numbers of 'community budget' pilots seeking to take this agenda to its logical extremes and pioneered by Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles MP . The upshot is a set of plans that are revolutionary in their potential.
With an authority area that embraces neighbourhoods among the most enduringly poor in the country, such as Ellesmere Port, and those which host major banks and great wealth, such as parts of suburban Chester, to set out such a hope is not glib. Intense social challenges are a local reality and defeating it a bi-partisan passion on this patch.
Operationally, Cheshire West's model is designed around creating a single point of entry to, and a single point of advocacy for, those families who approach public services. Co-located, jointly managed staff will have a mandate to champion their client through the system and various agencies so reducing time burdens, psychological pressure and costs for those looking for help. Collaboration in operations is being driven by shared leadership. A joint board is in place across the agencies involved and even the finance directors of each are meeting monthly to ensure a free-flow of resources beyond traditional boundaries.
A new suite of financial indicators at the top table is being matched with new recruitment criteria which emphasize the duty to collaborate at the coalface. Robinson is so hopeful that such detailed work will reap dividends that he has begun to argue for a new form of 'payment by results' that rewards those authorities that deliver real returns. Indeed he has recently been at the Treasury suggesting that if the police, local government, health and others can share budgets and operations to raise client satisfaction and cut costs, they should collectively benefit from the proceeds of such innovation, so enabling them to invest even more in defeating poverty and backing economic growth.
Combined with striking plans in cultural services, where a large lottery grant has been combined with very significant sponsorship support from the Bank of America, there is something of an emergence of a 'social silicon valley' effect in Cheshire, a buzz in the air that is beginning to attract new partners and investors. No wonder the council’s leadership emphasizes the need to 'keep it dry', not to talk in broad sweep about possibilities but to pay real attention to concrete and achievable outcomes which deliver.
The opportunity, then, for a truly ‘one nation’ Southern Policy Centre is to learn from the best that comes from the North but then to make sense of such excellence in its own context. Under Labour, over 1200 central targets burdened local government, which meant that, in general and the South in particular, it was not in a strong position to do its own thinking. But now is the moment for such fresh ideas to be unlocked as the coming years of austerity point to an ever increasing demand for innovation.
In time, of course, this may lead to a well-staffed think tank for the North. But until then the 20th landscape where England’s time has come once again. November represents a fresh chance to reflect in a changing landscape where England’s time has come once again.
Francis Davis is an author, journalist and a co-founder of the Southern Policy Centre, and was previously policy advisor to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and a private sector CEO.