Since 1997 central government has been pursuing an agenda of local government modernisation designed to tackle some of the fundamental public service, governance and accountability concerns facing local authorities and the public sector more widely. From CCT to Best Value, one of the biggest changes has been in performance management and the rating of authorities in relation to the CPA regime and the drive for continuous improvement and value for money. This has now moved on to Gershwin and the move towards efficiency savings.
Nick Raynsford (MP) in a discussion in 2004 said the changes in recent years have been incremental and have led to incremental improvements. The changes he said have been responses to immediate problems and what is needed was a longer term vision dealing with the fundamentals about what local government should be doing in 10 years time.
For the purpose of this presentation it is important to highlight central government modernisation agenda which include:
The requirement that local authorities must produce community and neighborhood renewal strategies. The requirement that local authorities must create Local Strategic Partnerships as a method of engaging the necessary local players in the development of such strategies. The introduction of Best Value to replace compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) as the mechanism for reviewing, and where appropriate outsourcing, public service delivery. The publication of a National Procurement Strategy for Local Government.
The introduction of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment as a way of assessing local authority effectiveness. Greater freedoms and financial flexibilities for high performing local authorities. The introduction of negotiated Local Public Services Agreements which also bring greater freedoms to those local authorities willing to strive for stretching targets. Constitutional reform allowing for the creation of directly elected local Mayors and the shift to cabinet style local government (Local Government Act 2000)
Expected changes in the next 5-10 years. The changes in local government over the next 5-10 years will centre mainly on demonstrating that it is relevant to the local community and securing the skills and capacity to do its job well.
In the future I see residents and stakeholders having a greater say in local decision making geared towards community cohesion integrating the private and public sectors. This will involve Registered Social Landlord's (RSL), private house builders, the Council, health, social care, education and the justice system all working together to plan for communities.
The local government's democratic accountability to local people will be very crucial. Local government is the only body accountable to the whole community. No other body is answerable to all local people for the decisions it makes. This is vital when decisions in one area have an impact on the wider community. Better local accountability and citizen engagement leads to choices about how users and local people are involved in the decisions which affect them. This will mean going beyond local elections, to find other ways of giving individuals and local communities a more direct say in what is done in their name. Local government will be expected to explore models which will differ from council to council depending on local circumstances for engaging smaller groups with particular interests.
The growing expectations of users will require local government to make choices about the nature of the public services provided. A genuinely user-focused service will require a fundamental change in the way local government approach delivery, thus giving local people a bigger say in the design of services and a wider choice between products and services.
Most local authorities now operate a cabinet system of governance with a leader. In most cases the greater involvement of the cabinet and the executive council members in decision making has had an impact on the chief executive with less involvement in policy development in some council. The impact on senior managers is equally severe as they fear that politicians are moving into the sphere of management.
The local government will concentrate more in local democracy, leadership, community engagement and quality in public services. Relevant to all of these will be the balance of responsibilities between central, local and regional government and the potentially enhanced role that people at neighborhood level could play in determining local priorities.
The local government will be faced with external challenges i.e. changes in demographic trends such as an ageing population. It is predicted that in the next 10yrs there will be more people aged over 65 years than those under 16, and the growth of one person household. There is also the challenge that new technology will bring. It is to be expected that the local government will be doing more work to "join up" the three key strands of e-service delivery, e-governance and e-democracy. The council will need to adopt a new approach to e-government in an attempt to push up performance and efficiency, improve e-service delivery and become "proactive" in linking with local communities through e-democracy.
Local government will also have to respond to changes in how people use new online technology to play a far more proactive role in how it interacts with local communities, and how those communities engage with each other. This changing role requires the councils to accept the changing nature of society, as well as how they can help others to find their own solutions through the identification of common interests." There is need for local authorities to support the development of new technology to help "connect citizens to each other", and the recognition that IT can bring social groups together as community halls and libraries did in the past. While councils have been wary, fearing that citizens may more easily form campaign groups which can upset the balance between claims of different competing local interests, a more "proactive" approach to e-democracy is needed. The creation of a healthy environment
Local government has a unique ability to capture the importance of locality and place. People care about their local areas and need local government to reflect their views and concerns which can be addressed by shaping what is delivered to meet their needs and preferences.
Local government need to collectively take more responsibility for the performance of the sector. Councils must accept that when something goes wrong it cannot always be blamed on others. It needs to develop a genuine culture of continuous improvement and innovation. Effective organisations should constantly challenge their current level of performance, and have a willingness and enthusiasm to look outside and learn from others. This includes a rigorous approach to cost-effectiveness - getting value for money for those who pay for the services, and ensuring that taxes are set within acceptable levels.
Good educational opportunities and attainment
Local government for its survival need to secure a workforce with the qualities and skills needed in the years ahead, at all levels within the organisation. It must be in a position to attract able people, and to train
and develop them. Political and managerial leadership is important, but it can only be achieved by earning the respect of the local community which requires council leaders to demonstrate the skills and competence to do the job well.
When the government talks of balanced communities, it is a euphemism for communities that are not uniformly poor and deprived of work. In the 1950s, the old Labour politician Aneurin Bevan spoke of re-creating "the living tapestry of a mixed community" where "the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street". Today, the creation of mixed and balanced communities is also a mantra of New Labour policy, mentioned in every regeneration speech and policy document and reflected in planning policy. Local government will aim to tackle the blight of socially excluded areas while also going some way to solving the affordable housing by inserting a significant element of low-cost housing in all new private developments. But as more mixed schemes begin to come on stream, policy makers and academicians are increasingly divided in their views about its benefits and surprised by the weight of research showing that Bevan's ideal of strong, mutually supportive communities is not reflected in reality.
Local social and employment opportunities
The opportunity of gaining local employment will go some way towards contributing not only to community spirit but towards helping those who are less educated. One example of an opportunity could be around the area of part time working during school hours for mothers, whilst children are at school. Whilst this will give a feeling of self worth, it also raises the chance of individuals becoming less reliant on social benefits.
There is no doubt that devolution is a challenge for most local government. Seen from the local level devolution can easily resemble centralisation as new functions may get sucked up to the new devolved institutions and new
targets, new forms of regulation or financial constraints which limit the autonomy of local government may emerge from the new devolved ‘centre’. This an area that that I foresee changes in the years to come.
The importance of local government autonomy was raised sometime last year when a group of young Tory thinkers at national and European level called for local government to reclaim its autonomy from Westminster. A publication by a group of Tory Conservative MP’s and MEP’s attributed the low voter turnout and growing cynicism on increasing centralisation. It argues that people cannot see the point of voting when they cannot see how it affects their daily life.
However, it is the view of Warren Hatter that local authorities will have to earn their autonomy for the foreseeable future. He believes more progress will be made by recognising this than by arguing for a new constitutional settlement to give local government sovereignty as of right.