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Is economic growth an imperative for councils?

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

After having spent a day (at the Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum) listening to council Chief Executives tell us how they were planning to stimulate the local economy as a means of growing their way out of austerity I was intrigued by a post from Hannah Fearn of the Guardian entitled:

Have councils abandoned the poor searching for economic growth?

It turns out that the headline was far more provocative than the article which was, as always, a thoughtful look at the issue; examining tensions in housing policy and the struggles that local authorities and social landlords are having in balancing the social role of housing and the need to build and regenerate.

However, towards the end of the piece Hannah raises a provocative point:

'But many questionable choices are councils' own, from Hackney's decision to cosy up to the international digital elites while poverty spreads on its own doorstep to the effective displacement of social tenants in the regeneration of Southwark's Elephant and Castle area.

Just like housing, has local government started to lose its soul in the relentless chase of local economic growth above all else? The government is paying them a bung to do so, after all. If local government forgets that it, too, is part of the safety net – even as it calls for a safety net of its own – where does that leave us?'

Having spent a day listening to council Chief Executives looking to grow their local economies I am sure their answer to this question would be a firm ‘no’. For a council like Liverpool or Derby economic growth is essential to enable them to increase their tax base (both council tax and business rates), provide work for their local population and to protect local services.

If we assume that the local politicians and officers have read their local situation correctly then the question becomes about the balance between the priorities. Are we, as local authorities, making sure that we are focusing as much on the services we pay for from this growth as we are in generating the growth in the first place? I can’t speak for them but at least on the surface in Liverpool it seemed like they were adept at making this balance.

The growth, and the council's role in more 'creative' growth was being driven by a small group of managers. The vast majority of staff were, as far as I could tell, still working on delivering the services they always had (although obviously this number was falling with the cuts). If you can get this balance right then you don’t need to abandon the poor to pursue economic growth. Indeed, if you are brining jobs to the area and then helping people get back into work then this is arguably a pro-poor position even without the service imperative.

Hannah’s suggestion was that Hackney spent too much time on the economic stuff and was losing focus on the services (the Southwark example is more complex and probably deserves its own article). This may be the case although my counter argument would be that a council who is ignoring the development of their local economy is surely just as bad as one neglecting the services they provide.

Councils are about far more than localised service provision and the danger of the argument against these strategies is that it becomes a minimalist interpretation of local government; one which eventually will fail the population who elected it.

A council like Hackney might get away with it because they are in London (although I doubt freeloading would last for ever) but if I learnt anything this week it is that councils have a duty to be more than just service providers.

What is more, for many councils this duty is now a pressing necessity. When the Government grant is cut as much as it has been and when there are precious few other options for local councils to raise revenue many have an obligation, if they are to protect local services and sustain their communities, to take economic development seriously.

Have councils abandoned the poor in search of economic growth? In some cases this is probably the case but in my reading this is nowhere near a universal thing. Should councils abandon economic growth because it feels uncomfortable next to their other social aims? No, that would be as big an abrogation of their responsibilities and just as difficult to defend, especially when so many councils are showing how it can be done right.

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17 things we took away from the Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

On Thursday myself and Glen were the ‘official media partners’ for the Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum. We heard from Brandon Lewis MP, the Chief Executives of multiple local authorities (including Cornwall, Derby, Barnet, Liverpool, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire) and the input of multiple delegates.

Afterwards we agreed that there was so much at the conference that piqued our interest that it would be impossible to document it all in one post (or even write such a post so soon after the event). However, as is traditional and would be expected here are a few takeaways from the event.

1)      An interesting thought from the Chief Executive of Cornwall. It is possible that in five / ten years we will no longer talk of local government or local councils. Instead we may have local public services; brought together in a single form.

2)      Meanwhile, a comment from the Chief Executive of Northamptonshire. If local leaders aren’t operating across the public sector then they aren’t doing their job. Taken together this shows a continued recognition of the necessary blurring of the lines between local government and other local public services.

3)      Speaking of integration During Brandon Lewis MP’s keynote he made an interesting big picture point about the long-term impact of integration programmes. He sees the transforming families and BCF programmes as being trail-blazers within Whitehall. If local government and partners can demonstrate the systemic value of these programmes it will help open up Whitehall further. This was the first time I’d heard it argued like that and demonstrated an interesting big picture view.

4)      Talking of the troubled families programme the minister told us that one county council estimates that the troubled families programme can save £50m per year.

5)      Another argument for more integration: Local councillors have a 77% approval rate: almost 70% more than MPs

6)      We’d predicted that there would be a lot of talk of economic development but a surprising number of Chief Executives referred to a concept we had only previously heard in regard to the UK government; that of growing our way out of austerity.  We’re going to look at this further in another post.

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Some thoughts before the Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

Today, the WLLG team are acting as the 'official media partner' for the Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum. As we make our way to the venue here are a few notes about the types of things we might expect today. You'll have to check back to see if we were right and to hear all about what else went on at what promises to be an interesting event.

1) There'll be lots of talk of the (local) economy

The narrow vision of local government as merely an (elected) service provider has always seemed a little un-ambitious but the more maximalist visions (place shaping?!) are a little unacceptable. Thus, what has quickly become the acceptable, and consensus, role of a more ambitious local government has revolved around economic development.

Thus it is no surprise that economic development will be a key feature of two of the keynote addresses. Indeed, I would be very surprised if it didn't also crop up in Brandon Lewis MP's address; especially after George Osbourne's pitch for HS3 and more City Mayors (again with an economic rationale).

The challenge for local government will be how they manage to combine their role as economic incubators with their wider role shaping their local area and providing services. The balance between the ambitions is always difficult and I'm hoping we hear from the speakers about some of the tensions and how they look to manage them.

2) The cuts are still there

The titles of the sessions show that the cuts (spending constraints?!) are still looming large over local councils. Demand management, income generation, delivering effective and efficient services through pooled budgets and managing the least and social care budgets are just some examples of sessions with the cuts firmly in mind.

However, my sense is that the discussions are becoming more mature and nuanced and are certainly looking beyond the immediate horizon for more long term solutions. My expectation is that the debate at the Forum will reflect this and my hope is that councils up and down the country will continue to develop an increasingly sophisticated approach to the cuts.

Again, the debate will be fascinating.

3) It is thus heartening to see a talk entitled Strategic Commissioning to Deliver Outcomes for Communities

Because not everything is about cuts and it will be good to hear what Nick Bell, Chief Executive at Staffordshire, has to say.

4) We'll be listening out for a possible regional element to these discussions

When we blogged about this Forum and our role at it one of our readers got in touch to suggest we looked into the regional dimension. Does local government look different in the North East than it does in the South West? Do councils have more in common with their geographical neighbours over their fellow counties or districts? And is this different significant enough to matter?

We'll probably write about this more in a week or two but we'll be on the look out for any interesting insight.

5) We'll do our best not to make fools of ourselves

We know we're not journalists so we're going to try and cover the forum in a slightly different way; hopefully one that you, our readers, will find both interesting and insightful.

And if you'd like to get in touch during the day please tweet us @welovelocalgov or you can follow the conference at #LGstrategicforum

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Reflections on LocalGovCamp 2014

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog


In case you hadn’t heard, Saturday 21 June saw the fifth sort-of-annual occurrence of the awesomeness that is LocalGovCamp. Not sure what it is? Take a look here to get the lowdown, and while you’re there take a look at some of the brilliant blog posts that have already been coming up as a result of so many fantastic people coming together in the same place at the same time.

I’m really heartened by the number (and quality) of the posts, along with the thinking behind them. LocalGovCamp seems to have enabled people to reach out towards concepts and ideas which have been tantalisingly intangible for a while, talk them through with others and coalesce them into actionable, exciting plans and inspirational thoughts. It’s relit a lot of fires, and captured the essence of what is so amazing about many of the best of local government.

Over the years it’s become something of a tradition to record a few of my own take-away thoughts from camp events, so in no particular order here are my own recollections from the day now that some dust has settled.

Collaborating on collaboration

The first session I went to was a session on collaboration, and helping people find both each other and good ideas. It was slightly ironic that, whilst the discussion centred around how we all want to see ideas, research and people brought together to enable collaboration, there were actually a lot of competing options which don’t play nice with each other. Lots of people have bought into, and make use of, some pretty big online tools but none of these tools seems to have really cracked it, nor do they work together as a matter of course.

Also, no matter how good the tools, there is still far too much needed around changing the culture of openness, transparency and honesty. Despite what we will all say to the contrary, none of our organisations are truly transparent by choice. We never shout about the things that went wrong as well as the things that went right, we never say “we made a mistake on that” and we never by choice put ourselves in positions where we can be criticised.

Finding people and resources would definitely be hugely valuable, but we collectively need to be more honest about our work and work aloud more than we do at the moment, from conception of projects through to delivery and evaluation. Nobody wants to read pages and pages of case studies saying how wonderful other people are and how they achieved amazing things; we want warts and all. We want to hear that other organisations are like our own, that they are run by real people and that they have real challenges. We want to see where things went wrong and how they were put right so we can identify with them more, and we want to use all of this knowledge to collaborate across borders to create common resources which can then be tailored and adapted locally.

Private bad, public good

Having not been intending to pitch anything at all and to simply take part, I surprised myself by jumping into the queue on the spur of the moment and pitching two sessions, the second of which was on the divide between public and private sectors, why this divide exists and what can be done about it. I got a little (I hope) lighthearted booing from the audience when I revealed that I had technically left the sector, which encouraged one or two private sector colleagues to turn up for the discussion (thanks for the support by the way!). I’ll admit, the session had nothing other than a vaguely formed rip off of a Two Ronnies sketch to set it up and get it going, but was a remarkably interesting conversation nonetheless*.

I was slightly disappointed that so few public sector people came along. There were some excellent comments made by @martinhowitt and we also had a councillor in the room too (I feel terrible for not knowing her name), but at points it felt in danger of private sector talking to itself and putting the world to rights. Relationships must be two-way, and passions on this particular subject usually run hot, so to have little input from public sector colleagues was surprising. I expect it was simply down to other interesting debates happening elsewhere, but we all need to consider these issues a bit more and look at what we are going to be doing personally to change culture rather than simply stating that culture must change.

I for one will be hyper-aware of my comments about local government going forward and sensitive to the impact a throw-away comment about a particular situation can have in colouring the perceptions of others around the sector.

*For those of you interested, I simply asked whether there was any validity to a changing of the classic upper class/middle class/working class sketch, replacing upper class with the voluntary and community sector (“I am made up of the people who really care, who are motivated by higher ideals than money and who truly want the best for their communities. I look down on the public sector, as they are a bureaucratic mess, more interested in process than improving things, but are better than the private sector as at least they have some semblance of compassion for ordinary people”), replacing middle class with public sector (“I am made up of people who do care, though not as much as the voluntary and community sector who I look up to and defend, no matter what the quality of service they deliver. I work within my remit to improve our communities according to the desires of our elected officials, and therefore look down on the private sector who are only motivated by maximising profits for their shareholders.”) and replacing working class with private sector (“I look up to the voluntary and community sector and the public sector as they have a calling, while all I want to do is get on with my job.”).

It’s of course meant to be nothing more than a conversation starter and I don’t believe it at all, but the perceptions of clear distinctions between the sectors is something which both fascinates and depresses me.

You had me at disrupt

Finally (for this post anyway), the one moment of the day which seems to have been picked up by a few people. After I’d grabbed some calories at lunchtime and consumed them whilst having conversations with some of the sponsors I remembered the Local Gov Digital steering group meeting which was taking place, so made my way over to hover in the background and listen to them talk. I’ve been wanting to be involved in the group for some time but was prevented from being for a couple of reasons which I won’t go into here, so to see that there were loads of people equally interested was great and spoke of the health of the movement (thanks Sarah Jennings for introducing that word to this context!).

I want to be very clear – I am a huge fan and supporter of the people involved and the work done to date. In a very short space of time (as was pointed out by a member of the group) the team had risen to prominence and influence in the sector, and was starting to make some waves.

However, the things I heard being discussed – creating more govcamps, networking, building up peer support and growing the group – only dealt with what I saw as half the battle. Focusing solely on the softer side of things and attempting to change culture only from within leaves a huge gap for bold, ambitious, conversation defining leadership which I see the steering group as perfectly placed to fill.

Love them or hate them, the Taxpayers Alliance for me are the perfect example of how things could move forward. Notwithstanding the political angles involved, at the most basic level the TPA is a very small group of people who, through lobbying, statement making and media pressing have changed the conversations being had at all levels of officer and political life, and have directly or indirectly influenced real, tangible changes to both legislation and public opinion. They are the people called by the red tops, the broadsheets, tv and radio media when anything related comes up, and they are the people who get their opinions out there which then shift the agenda to where they believe it should be.

Local Gov Digital has it within itself to take just that role for itself when it comes to local government and the digital agenda. I love the work that GDS has done for central government, but LGD doesn’t need to ask its centrally supported brother for permission to stand up and demand better of local government. It doesn’t need to be empowered by others to start having those conversations with people who really matter in all this – the politicians, chief execs and decision makers who will take the LGD message back to their organisations and ask why they aren’t involved or how they are responding to LGD work.

I called for LGD to grow some digital balls; to realise the awesome power it has in terms of the people and brains involved, to plan big and think bigger and to develop a plan of attack for shifting the agenda forward at speed to build upon the momentum it has already built up. I’d love to see some key principles for digital developed in the next few months and then released, along with a comms campaign of some kind to say “this is what we believe, and these are the principles which we expect local government should adhere to”. LGD needs to be proud of itself and be bold in its ambitions; let’s not wait for someone to point at us and say “LGD, oh yes, they’re doing some good things”, let’s make it impossible to ignore our message.

Anyway…

There are loads more thoughts racing through my head, and a dozen or so blog posts I could tap out if I had just a little time to do so (I’ll make time, I promise!). Suffice to say at this stage that localgovcamp reignited my passion for doing more for local government than the bare minimum and proved that the next few months will be very interesting indeed. I’m hoping to speak to more previous campers, current campers and future campers than I have done before and looking forward to seeing how some of the great things talked about are put into action.

Roll on localgovcamp 2015 at the Eden project!

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8 things I learnt whilst on paternity leave

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

23rd June 2014

Never in my life has twelve weeks gone so quickly. 

As I return to work after my three month paternity leave I find myself experiencing a similar sense of trepidation as I did when I last left the civic centre in March. Nerves about work and about my son and a general sense of uncertainty about what the future will hold grip me much as they did when I last made the return journey.

Nonetheless, and despite the general sense of personal tension I feel today, I can honestly say that my experience of paternity leave was one that I genuinely enjoyed. It wasn't without its ups and downs but I look back on the weeks with not a single drop of regret. My son has changed so much in the last three months (as babies do) and it's been great to be a part of that from really close up.

In lieu of writing something a bit too soppy, and recognising that this will be very familiar territory to any parents reading this, here are a few lessons I learnt whilst on additional paternity leave.

1) Baby care really is a woman's world

With (good?) reason nearly everything in the world of baby-care is dominated by women. I think I knew this when I took my time off but the extent of it did surprise me a little. The only other men I came across on a semi-regular basis were grandfathers looking after this grandchildren (I assume as part of their retirement?) and in general there wasn't really an expectation that men would be regular attendees.

One afternoon after our swimming session I was changing my son and had a bit of a shock when a woman wondered into our changing room with her young baby (thankfully I had my pants on). My class knew there was a man attending and so left the mens for me but the other classes, it seems, had no expectation that men would attend and so just split their group between the mens and womens. It makes total sense but nonetheless did surprise me a little.

I wouldn't want this to seem as if people were unfriendly; indeed, the opposite is the case. Everyone I met was lovely and extremely tolerant of the new guy who was yet to learn how the various groups worked (most of the other parents were a good five/six months in and were fully to grip with everything; I was, especially at first, not!). I was just aware of my uniqueness. 

2) Despite this there is, as you would expect, no reason why a man can't do it

At first I felt a little nervous about being my son's sole carer during the day. I don't know why but I just felt very concious that I wasn't his mother and needed to 'catch up' with my parenting. Despite this, and my own insecurities, there was nothing about looking after my son, especially once he was five months old that I couldn't do because I was a man (we'd moved him off of breast feeding in time for my leave to kick in). It may sound self-evident but there is no practical reason why a man can't do this.

3) Looking after a baby is really tiring

When asked about the most tiring thing you can do at work I always say that conducting job interviews is by far the worst. It involves constant concentration and provides little opportunity to mentally take a break. Looking after a baby is similar. Although the average baby day is not exactly intellectually taxing (although your project management skills are tested!) the constant concentration and the various needs of a baby over a 12 hour period often left me feeling more knackered by day end than a day at work. 

4) And concentrating on anything else is tricky

I had thought that I would catch up on some box sets and stuff while I was off but it was absolutely impossible to concentrate on anything else whilst looking after the baby. I ended up resorting to old West Wing box sets; at least I already knew what was going to happen so it didn't matter when I missed most of it!

Likewise, getting house work, cooking, e-mails and all manner of other things done during the day was pretty tough.

5) My diet sucks

When you have a dependent you are very concious of the food you are giving them. I cooked, steamed, chopped and blended and all of the food was healthy (certainly no salt) and most of it was fairly tasty. Yet, at the same time as I was purée ing cubes of carrot I was making myself a sandwich and eating on the go (although I did occasionally steal some of his food!). The health visitor asked me if he was eating the same food as us yet and I didn't have the heart to tell her he ate far better than I did. I really need to sort that out.

6) Babies really do develop at a different pace and getting worried about it is a mugs game

My baby can crawl. He's very pleased with himself about it and seems to have mastered the skill before some of his similar aged colleagues. But he can't clap. For a while I tried to teach him to clap; so that he could join in with clapping songs. He didn't really want to learn, far more interested in exploring on his hands and knees. I worried about it a little but the more you think about it the more ridiculous it is. One day he'll be able to clap and likewise his peers will learn to crawl. The exact order of all of this stuff is really not that important. Interesting perhaps but really not that important.

7) I had no idea how stressed I was

This sounds silly but I had no idea how strung out I was when I finished work in March. I do find my job stressful at times and it has been a particularly rough few months on a large project (with some sleep deprivation at home thrown in) but I had no idea how bad it had got.

Within about two weeks I noticed that I was far more relaxed than I had been; just as tired but far less on edge. And the more I looked back on how I had been the more I realised that it had got bad. I mentioned this to my wife and she told me that she knew and had been worried about me and when I met up with a friend after a couple of months of paternity leave she said I looked five years younger.

If it is really true that a change is as good as a rest I really hope the change has reset me a little.

8) Changing tables in the Gents toilets are hard to find

A small complaint as most locations also had changing facilities within the accessible toilet but if there was any additional changing facilities they were generally in the Female toilets and not in the Gents. This was a little irking!

And now it is all over. My son is at nursery and I'm heading back to local government; wish me luck!

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