A quick question for you: What links talkSPORT, and local government?
I admit the link isn’t immediately apparent, and may exist only in my tiny mind but stick with me:
I saw this headline pop up when listening to digital radio the other day and it genuinely surprised me. talkSPORT is a fairly big radio station but how is it possible that it is the biggest sports radio station in the whole world? When you think that Britain is a fairly small country (relatively), talkSPORT doesn’t have the rights to all of Britain’s sport (much of which is on fivelive) and as far as I am aware if you don’t have a digital radio the station is still marooned on medium wave.
However, the more I thought about it the more this makes sense. In many other countries their sports radio stations are regional; based around cities or teams or localities. They don’t have big sports radio stations because they don’t, I posit, have national sports radio stations.
This blog has, for many years, debated the peculiarly centralised British state, and argued that we need far more devolution to local councils and local people. This hasn’t really happened so far and despite words to the contrary from all governments doesn’t seem destined to happen any time soon (although we are more optimistic than ever).
Perhaps the same country that can tolerate, and indeed expects, the world’s largest sports radio station isn’t culturally suited to having significantly devolved local government. Indeed, if we exclude Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland I’m not sure there is any motivation to do anything much regionally at all. We don’t have regional banks, regional supermarkets, a regional health service, or much infrastructure that can be really described as regional. It even happens in art galleries where the Tate now has ‘branches’ in Cornwall and Merseyside.
From the use of the expression ‘postcode lottery’ to the centralised state as seen in Whitehall through to talkSPORT, of all stations, being a world beater, perhaps we are just a country that prefers to be centralised, to have one government and one set of rules for us all to follow. And if so, perhaps we should start to be more honest about the amount of devolution the public expect and the politicians expect to deliver.
Or perhaps I should stop reading so much into radio propaganda and instead start watching London Live?
About five years ago I went to a talk about local government procurement. As a fairly new local government officer with a slightly over-egged sense of my own understanding of the inner workings of the council I was fully prepared for a discussion of how poor local councils were at negotiating contracts with the private sector.
I was thus fairly surprised when the speaker, a procurement consultant whose name I can’t remember and thus regrettably I can’t credit, said that on the contrary he felt that the problem with local councils was not their procurement (although there was room for improvement) but actually managing the contracts they had already let.
The procurement and management of those contracts are obviously linked but it does feel like contract management is the less ‘sexy’ of the two and thus gets far less attention. Indeed, I can’t imagine David Cameron commissioning Sir Philip Green to review management arrangements of contracts in Government.
I was reminded of this early local government lesson twice last week. Firstly, when an IT consultant I know told me that her (private sector) clients spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on systems that they rarely used and then later the same day when Birmingham City Council announced that they would be renegotiating their IT contract with Capita and saving £150m:
‘Birmingham City Council says it can save £150m over seven years by renegotiating its contract with Capita. The council's cabinet is being asked to approve the continuation of the Service Birmingham contract with Capita "in return for substantial savings".
It sounds like this renegotiation is being done within the context of a contract extension but it does show the willingness of suppliers to work with you as situations change and also shows the importance of keeping an eye on the contract and what you are receiving from it.
The lesson here is twofold. Firstly councils need to be better at managing their contracts and only paying for the elements of the contract they are actually using or if costs change massively just paying a reasonable price for those services. Secondly, just because a contract is signed doesn’t mean that the issue is moot for, say, the next 5 years. On the contrary there are always negotiations to be had and adjustments that can be made.
It’s not sexy but unlocking £150m of savings really doesn’t need to be.
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:
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.