“You get on with Brexit, and we will run the country.”
That was the message from Lord Gary Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association to Government Ministers at this week’s annual LGA Conference in Birmingham.
The LGA Conference is a fantastic event where councillors of all political persuasions from across the country come together to discuss the issues facing the sector. Rural districts, shire counties, unitaries, London boroughs and metropolitan authorities are all represented.
When walking around the exhibition hall and listening to the debates on the conference stage however, you can’t help but wonder if the Leaders in local government are missing an opportunity.
The overwhelming sense you get is that Council Leaders, while understandably frustrated with central Government, are waiting for someone in Whitehall to ride in and solve their problems.
Local councils are facing huge challenges in funding themselves efficiently and effectively. The financial woes facing adult social care and children’s services have been well publicised and recent events have certainly served to put a sharp focus on the quality and delivery of housing for some of the most vulnerable in society. Overall most of the things that residents grumble about on a day to day basis are all the responsibility of local authorities – not central Government. Clearly there are extraordinary challenges being grappled with, none of which should be belittled.
Understandably councillors and officers are exasperated with a government that is more than capable of criticism but has done little to assist in strengthening councils’ resilience and capacity to cope with ever increasing challenges. While Westminster is focused on Brexit, councils hoping this will change may be waiting a long time.
But, and this is where Lord Porter hit the nail on the head, there is a massive opportunity for local government to fill a void being left by Westminster – if they are bold enough to grasp it.
Now is the time for bold leadership. There is no shortage of innovative technologies from the private sector to take advantage of or sophisticated support available for Leaders and Chief Executives. All were on show this week in Birmingham. And it is not as if there are not examples of successful leadership to follow either, you only have to look at those councils who anticipated the loss of the Revenue Support Grant and changed the way they operate to become self-sufficient in advance of the RSG being removed for example.
Council Leaders, whatever their authority type, can enact change that impacts their residents’ lives directly and immediately for the better, often far more so than MPs.
Let’s beware of falling into the trap of moving from robust discussion of problems in order to find solutions into naval gazing; if local government wants more from central government it needs to continue to evolve and demonstrate its ability to lead change that delivers growth for all.