All government and local government always contends with the power of the status quo. So this is an exciting time to be in local government when councils have to innovate and do things differently if we have any prospect of protecting frontline services. A recent LGC confidence survey showed increasing confidence that frontline services can be protected but low confidence in the DCLG ministerial team.
Eric tops the poll with a net confidence score of -92. The same survey has net confidence that Eric and his ministers understand local government of -71, will engage and consult on policy development of -82, will listen to local government of -88, will be a champion for local government of -88 and will be a fair and reasoned critic of local government of -89.
What a load of tosh! Not for the first time has the local government consensus got things the wrong way round. Net confidence with DCLG ministers should be at all time high.
Eric asked me to become the Head of the Conservative Councils Innovation Unit when you need outriders and people who dare to think the unthinkable. Before the general election Two CCIU Localis pamphlets set out to define a bold vision for Conservative local government:
– Big Ideas: Building on Conservative fundamentals
– Principles for Social Housing Reform
Then “A Magna Carta for Localism” (co-authored with Edward Lister and Colin Barrow) described how local government is largely shaped by Central Government which pulled the levers of control using a combination of policy, guidelines, legislation and targets.
In that CPS pamphlet we set out four significant barriers that acted as a road block to Localism:
- No power of general competence
- Centrally imposed policies via a raft of targets, guidelines and legislation
- Limited self-determination on housing and regeneration
Burdensome regulation and oversight regime which dictated approach to be taken.
Services by silos
- Local services provided by different units, including local authorities, police, NHS, Fire, DWP with limited connectivity to drive efficiency.
- Silo-based services hampered ability to provide integrated services around the needs of residents and families rather than the bureaucracy delivering them
- Low level of financial autonomy
- Restrictions on charging for services
- Restrictions on use of asset base
How the Government responded
- The Localism Bill will introduce a general power of competence for all local authorities
- The Government has ended reporting requirements on local area agreements and the imposition of targets against national indicators has ceased- but there is still much more to do
- The provisions within the Localism Bill will allow local authorities greater self-determination on housing policies
- Local enterprise partnerships are replacing regional development agencies to bring greater self- determination in the regeneration of local areas
- The comprehensive performance assessment has been abolished and the Audit Commission is being dismantled
- Transparency on local spending means that local authorities are now more accountable to their residents than to Central Government and its inspectorates
Services by silos
- Community Budgets are starting to bring public services together at local level, in pooling resources to drive efficiencies and service improvements, with a much greater focus on the needs of families than on the bureaucracy surrounding the services set up to meet those needs
Frankly that is an incredible down payment for localism. And I come here to praise Eric not bury him for having achieved all that in just 12 months.
But then we have to face the elephant in the room:
- Local authorities are still very much hampered by their lack of financial independence. This inhibits local accountability and the ability of local councils to make the policies, raise taxes locally and spend on providing the local services that will build strong local communities and economies.
If we want to unleash an era of municipal entrepreneurship in our town halls then we must remove the financial dependence of councils on Whitehall funding. If there is one man who can set the course to free councils of Whitehall handouts, it is Eric. This Secretary of State is the first to be contemplating reform local government finance for a generation. This big man can take on the big elephant in the room. My net confidence in that is +92.
But the confidence that the council budgets set for this municipal year will be delivered should be far lower. Any fool can set a budget but delivering this year’s council budget and protecting the frontline will be extremely tough. In Hammersmith & Fulham our challenge is to save £28 million in 2011/12 – rising to £65 million over the next three years
In February H&F Council set the 4th lowest council tax in Britain when we freeze council tax bills. Thanks to the four years of successive council tax cuts of 3%, there will an accumulated saving to the average council tax payer of £1,799 over five years.
This Conservative Council refuses to return to the era high council tax, high debt and bog standard council services of the decades when our town hall was controlled by Labour.
We also have a clear sense of direction.
There is no getting away from the fact that councils need a radical re-think about the way local public services are delivered. Unlike some other councils we are not taking an axe to services – we are using a scalpel instead:
We are driving out unnecessary costs. We are driving a harder bargain with suppliers on the prices we are charged on everything from residential care placements to IT and road surfacing materials. We are cutting back office and management costs and will lose around 330 posts this year.
We are also releasing underutilised assets to cut the council’s debt. In our first term we cut the council debt by £36 million and we will continue to reduce the massive burden created by our £133 million debt mountain – which still costs £5 million a year in debt interest payments alone before a single penny is spent on services. We are selling buildings we do not need and ploughing the proceeds into paying off what the council owes. I made a solemn pledge to repay the debt and we plan to have halved our debt in just 8 years. Repaying £80 million of council debt means that £8 million can be spent on frontline council services each year. The municipal footprint will have contracted from seven acres down to three in just eight years.
We will restructure our overheads by combining services and sharing expertise with neighbouring boroughs. By combining services with Westminster and K&C we will reduce management and overhead costs by half. The plan is lose 175 senior managers across the three boroughs including a Chief Executive
post. This drives out another £35 million worth of savings in three years. The triborough proposals are big, bold and brave move and it is the right thing to do. It was Sir Isaac Newton who said: “ We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
Finally we will reform the way we deliver local public services. We are not closing children’s centres. The Council currently has 15 Sure Start Centres and we are increasing the network by one. By combining with family recovery (targeting support at most vulnerable) and looking to schools and voluntary groups to provide some of the services we are able to generate savings. All of the centres will stay open, but with some (six hubs) delivering a greater range of services tied in with our Family Support programme. Nine 'spokes' will continue to deliver services with the support of voluntary groups and schools.
The three Rs
- Releasing assets that are underutilised
- Restructuring council services so that we cut our overheads
- Reforming the delivery of local public services
These are the three “R”s of common sense local government.
All these moves are made in the teeth of opposition. Releasing assets and selling off buildings is an attack on “the Big Society”. Combining services with neighbouring councils is branded an attack on localism and reforming the delivery of local public services is described as an attack on the vulnerable.
What tosh again!
Frankly we must ignore all the tosh from our political opponents so it is Conservative Councils that continue to deliver the highest quality local services at the lowest possible cost to the council taxpayer.