News and Comment

The relationship between councils, Whitehall and innovation

Thursday 1 November 2012

These are strange times to be working in local government. Councils, already bearing the brunt of public sector job losses, have since the 2010 Spending Review had to cope with a 7.1% year-on-year reduction of the DCLG’s budget, a process that will continue until 2014. Yet at the same time that money is being reduced, government legislation implies the control they will have over their own affairs is being increased.

The net effect of such drastically reduced resource, coupled with a burgeoning appetite for decentralisation has, in some cases, been a catalyst for innovation. Take the Adopt a Street programme inWindsor and Maidenhead for instance, in which, residents, schools and businesses have volunteered to look after a particular area or street usually through activities such as litter picking. The council provides these people with the necessary materials to supplement their own cleaning services (which have not been reduced) and derives dual benefits in return: a cleaner local environment and the encouragement of stronger relationships between neighbours. Or what about the Cooperative Councils movement, which arguably sees Labour councils working to reframe the contract between citizens and state under an alternative banner to the government’s Big Society?

Driven both by necessity and opportunity, local government of all political colours seems to be in a particularly rich vein of inventive problem-solving form at present. This is by no means a new phenomenon, however. Reflecting on past experience, the think tank History and Policy, notes that “when central government did legislate, it was almost always an attempt to generalise throughout the country a practice that had already been developed and thoroughly road-tested on the initiative of a particular locality. This was true for instance of public housing (Glasgow), free school meals (Birmingham) or the notification system for monitoring infectious diseases (Bolton).”

The point is that councils have always innovated, and that innovation has often been picked up by central government and rolled out nationwide. Yet the process by which this happens (or doesn’t happen), highlights the importance of the relationship between local and central government.

In the inaugural address at last week’s NCAS conference Schools Minister, David Laws was at pains to stress that his central government department fully respected their local government colleagues: “Many people in local government think central government looks down on them and doesn’t trust them” he said, “that is not my view”. Hardly a surprising announcement, but the fact that Laws felt the need to make it sheds light on the attitude of local government’s towards its national counterpart. In the much talked about Lord Heseltine review, No stone unturned in pursuit of growth, released yesterday, the former Conservative Deputy PM notes that Whitehall’s’ “distrust of local decision makers has increased”.

Writing in The MJ during party conference season, Heather Jameson stressed local government’s political marginalisation by Whitehall: “for a sector numerically dominated by local councillors, it is astounding how politics is utterly obsessed with a very small clique operating on the national stage”. And whilst this is undoubtedly true, so is Richard Vize’s observation of this month’s Solace conference – “the government was barely mentioned; no-one was waiting for a plan for growth or for education secretary Michael Gove to give them permission to work with academies – they were just doing it.”

One wonders whether these incongruous observations go some way to explaining the origins of local government’s vanguard role. Overlooked byWhitehalland often in competition for funding with other localities, councils have a tradition of getting on with things and developing eye-catching solutions worthy of wider implementation. That the UK is one of the few Western democracies without a codified settlement of the relationship between local and central government perhaps encourages a situation where “local government innovates, central government facilitates”.

Talking to local authority managers as part of our Unlocking Local Capacity research earlier this year, some told us that whilst the financial squeeze made their jobs harder, it was actually beneficial to innovation.  Of course, innovation is not always a comparable substitute for cold, hard cash and there are certainly staff and service users across the country who are feeling the effects of money being in short supply. There is also understandable cynicism that giving councils more power just as they’re receiving less money will allow central government to lay the blame for deteriorating local services at councils’ doors. Perhaps thinking of this, Heseltine declared that: “Local places will never be sufficiently empowered…unless we share the Government‘s most important lever – funding”. Yet it also remains true that out of this difficult financial climate, councils are finding new and brilliant ways to achieve positive outcomes, and that some of those innovations have the potential to change practice across the country – not only while times are hard, but long after the more austere years have passed.