Two remarkable points about the Public Administration Select Committee’s recent report Big Society: One, it is concerned with implementation; Two, the term councillor is not mentioned in the main text.
A small forest has been chopped down to produce literature on the Big Society and its bedfellow localism. There has been comparatively little concentration on the part that local government plays in the implementation of Big Society and localism.
Although the Government will need many different implementation methods if it wants to ensure that Big Society succeeds, the involvement of councillors is fundamental. Councillors have a legitimate vox publicus through being elected. They also overwhelmingly live and work within their neighbourhoods. Crucially they hold local purse-strings and historically they have been the arbiter of who get what in local services.
Many councillors can already argue with justification that community leadership is in their DNA. The problem is that the sort of community leadership that they have come to practise is essentially paternal. Councillors have been schooled into thinking they are the community voice. Now, there is an expectation that communities will be their own voice and for councillors to help them make it happen. It is a change from controlling and distributing money and to one of enabling, brokering, facilitating and arbitrating. If communities are to have a greater determining role, then elected officers and their officials have to change their way of operating. It is a profound change in the relationship between elected and elector and it will not happen overnight.
In organisational theory profound change requires a ‘change management programme’ to be agreed and enacted systematically. There is no time, perhaps no understanding and apparently no will for such niceties and so councillors are left to deliver change on a wing and a prayer.
With no structured approach the effect will be patchy. In areas where community activism is governed by self confident communities – composed in the main of well-educated, knowledge workers – then communities will comfortably assume greater responsibility for their well-being. In such areas the councillor’s task is limited to opening the council’s resources to support community activity. In areas where there is little formal association, there is little community architecture to support Big Society ideals. Here the task of the councillor will be to build capacity in the local population.
The size of institutional resistance cannot be exaggerated. Vested interests will dig deep in opposition to the changes required by the Big Society and the Localism Bill’s unshackling of councils. The situation calls for robust political leadership. That, in turn, requires particular skill sets and these can be encouraged through learning.
Training and resources are being steered towards what David Cameron has referred to as a “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 community organisers but little training or encouragement have been offered to councillors, even though they will often be the first port of call for budding community activists. It is not an either or situation. Let’s have the neighbourhood army – but the government should not overlook the troops they already have: councillors.
It is fashionable in political circles to believe that leadership cannot be taught and that it is gained through experience and birth. I disagree – which is why I have always made the case for professional development for politicians (especially if we are to see greater diversity amongst them). Following the reorganisation of the LGA last year much of the dedicated work on political leadership within party contexts disappeared. The timing is unfortunate. The challenges before councillors are enormous but also opportune. When the Localism Act comes into force local authorities will have much greater influence over their areas and much greater scope for innovative leadership. If Whitehall is to take the contribution of local government seriously councillors will need to deliver and deliver well.
Councillors should be by inclination, positioning and office the lynchpin of localism and of the Big Society. They deserve to be given the same encouragement and training as others.