Cllr Neil Clarke MBE is the Chairman of the District Councils’ Network and the Leader of Rushcliffe Borough Council.
The need for councils to adapt and continually improve in a testing environment of constant change is common across all parts of the local government family.
This need to adapt is equally felt by all of the 201 district councils in England, which the District Councils’ Network represents at a national level – through influencing central government and key stakeholders as well as through commissioning research, providing support and sharing best practice.
Our members are committed to driving the key priorities of devolution, business rates localisation and the wider resourcing of a new local government sector, public service reform, supporting economic and housing growth and improving the health and wellbeing of our communities.
As a network, we remain optimistic that district councils, which deliver 86 out of 137 essential local government services to nearly 22 million people – covering 40 per cent of the population and 68% of the country – have a positive role to play in unlocking complexity, reducing need and delivering scalable localist solutions.
The prime point for any local authority is to deliver quality services for residents, communities and businesses, to serve people and place.
Districts are positive in their capacity and ability to shape and lead the transformation of local government services. This is because district councils are the most efficient, valued and trusted part of government. We are flexible and adaptable, able to move and change at speed and the strand of local government that is closest to its communities while having the scale, leadership and influence to make a real difference where it counts.
This is especially the case of the district role in boosting housing supply. As the strategic planning and housing authorities in our areas, districts have an important role to play in the delivery of the housing and economic growth for the people and places we serve.
In 2014/15 district councils granted permissions for nearly 79,000 homes, 42 per cent of national total, two-fifths of which were affordable.
District councils approve 90 per cent of planning applications and do so quicker than our peers in other parts of local government – a winning track record we can improve and a process we can streamline still further through our involvement with the Local Plans Expert Group
At the start of the year, Communities Secretary Greg Clark left all of us in no doubt that moves to devolution and enhanced financial independence by the end of the decade went hand in hand.
As a network, the DCN is keen to ensure that the business rates system supports increased business growth, whilst ensuring funding stability for district councils so they can continue to drive regional growth and deliver those services that residents value the most.
Coverage of the development of devolution deals and discussions of the creation of unitaries seem to now to be a daily occurrence in the local government press. From a DCN viewpoint, the structure and governance of local government should be determined by what works best for local areas. The redesign of public services is best determined by localities themselves; one size does not fit all.
Districts provide the building blocks for place based approaches required for public sector reform. Clusters of districts are more aligned to the physical geography, Functional Economic Areas, and community assets required for place based approaches. Clusters of districts can, we feel, work most effectively with town and parish councils to ensure that services are delivered at the most appropriate level.
Across the country, District Clusters are coming together to deliver more efficient and effective public services across a functional economic area, whilst maintaining local governance and accountability structures and closeness to the community.
Districts matter. There are just under 5,000 Conservative district councillors, who make up more than half of the 8,872 total number across the board, and 121 out of the 201 districts across England are in Conservative control.
To increase understanding of the vital role played by district and to make sure their voice is heard in Westminster, the All Party Parliamentary Group for District Councils, chaired by Rugby MP Mark Pawsey held its first meeting last Wednesday.
A packed gathering of MPs and district leaders assembled in the Thatcher Room of Portcullis House heard local government minister Marcus Jones outline the Government’s intentions, through the Local Growth and Jobs Bill, to ensure full business rates retention incentivised growth and adequately financed valued local services.
We hope that as the APPG develops its agenda over the coming months and years, the district voice will be more fully heard in Parliament and our ability to deliver the Government’s agenda on housing and economic growth – as well as the valued and trusted local services our residents rely upon daily – improved in consequence.