In her article “The Radical Future Council” Professor Donna Hall, CBE Chair New Local, Former CEO Wigan Council seeks to answer some of the questions that I am sure many local authorities have on their minds. It’s hard to disagree with her thinking, but I find myself asking “is she radical enough?” The one glaring element missing from her thinking is Climate Change. As I am constantly reminded by my 15 year old son, 2030 is only 81 months away or 2,488 days to go to the first big deadline to avert the increase in global warming.
I would suggest that this blue sky thinking is needed in how the whole of the public sector provides services, rather than being limited to local authorities. And it needs to happen with urgency and speed. The NHS has to be part of that, but we also need to look at the police, ambulance & fire services, primary care, schools, adult education and further education, Job Centres, benefits, youth services, probation services, social services, licensing, libraries, care homes, community centres, registry offices and more. We need to review everything; nothing should be left out. It is not important who delivers the service, the question must be ‘what services do we as society want to enjoy?’. Only then can we ask who is best to deliver those services.
The local public sector cannot keep going as it is, for the reasons largely outlined in Hall’s article. Local Authorities are not alone at finding it harder and harder to deal with funding and demand.
Climate change is the elephant at the heart of why Donna Hall’s approach is radical, but simply not radical enough. We will see changes to how we travel, to our homes and how we heat and eventually cool our homes. Many communities will see increased threats from flooding and become more vulnerable to extreme weather events. The climate will affect people’s health: respiratory illness may increase and we may see mental health challenged further as people come to terms with changes to our lifestyles.
Local services will be at the forefront of adapting and responding to the climate emergency and while many are doing good work, we are only really addressing the tip of the iceberg (if you’ll forgive my use of this phrase in the context of climate change).
So, is this our “Joseph Chamberlain” moment? I think it’s time for local people to take control and redesign the very structure by which services are delivered. I wouldn’t wait for the Central Government: they will be delighted to see you taking the lead, as they were during the covid pandemic. Let’s look at services, agree what are essential and what we need to develop and enjoy, and then let’s design the management solution that is sleek, lean, flexible and focused to deliver them.
Let’s not restrict the discussions to who owns a service, but to how each asset can be part of the new solution. Let’s build the management structures so that they are fit for purpose rather than force old ways of working. Ask new questions, like “Do the councils, NHS and blue light services need their own property management support, or can new shared services do a better job?” Let’s liberate the talent and ingenuity that exists in each organization and share it. Stripping out duplications, finding simpler ways to deliver services and unlocking opportunities to do things differently could transform every part of our way of life.
I would imagine that “A new look Local Government” would, and should, end up being the leading agency among the public sector. The Police, Fire, Ambulance and National Health services all playing their essential roles but with delivery of the services using all the talent, assets, innovation and partnership working to support communities, while enabling the further change needed to tackle the effects of climate change – faster and better than we are today.
The transformation for climate change can then build on the new model, allowing for more drastic and radical changes to be made, without limits of governance and self imposed boundaries. The whole public sector can work together to reduce carbon on their existing services and innovate and adopt new forms of energy, transport and manage the new challenges of climate change.
The democratic leadership of Local Government is vital. I have always thought it was a lost opportunity that PCTs were not reversed into local authorities, giving primary care an element of democratic accountability, as radical and as fast as change needs to be in the coming days and weeks. I hope the new structures can be based on the model of local government and may address the question of re-organisation.
The public sector doesn’t just need to be radical. It needs to be hyper radical. In partnership with all agencies and open to rethinking how the public sector works, for the first time since 1945 and the post-war era. During the pandemic local government, with its partners, showed that it can achieve great things, in short order, using the talent of its officers. I think it’s time to find that can-do spirit again, for the elected representatives to stand tall and for everyone to come together. Be brave and make change happen fast, the clock is ticking!