For local government, this summer marks a turning point, as the country finally emerges from the depths of the pandemic and we begin to address the challenges left in its aftermath.
It is in these testing circumstances that I have been elected as the new chairman of the County Councils Network (CCN). At such a critical time, it is an enormous privilege to lead the network, and I want to build on the foundations laid over the last 16 months, where central and local government have worked in tandem to deal with the challenges our country and communities have faced.
Over recent years, I have admired how CCN has become one of the most prominent and recognised representative bodies. The network’s collective success in representing our members is one built on a constructive and proactive relationship with central government, while always standing ready to speak out to protect and promote the interest of the councils and communities we represent.
Alongside this, working with the wider local government family has always been at the heart of CCN’s DNA, articulating the challenges that bind the sector together. However, we must always recognise that county councils and large unitary authorities face a set of unique issues that necessitate a strong, autonomous voice.
CCN’s approach combines pragmatism and a willingness to challenge where necessary. This is something I want to continue, and build on, in my leadership, particularly as we seek to learn the lessons from the pandemic and influence the resumption of the domestic agenda.
The pandemic has shown the very best of local government, from efforts in suppressing the virus and protecting our NHS, to supporting our schools, and aiding the roll out the biggest vaccination programme in England's history, county and unitary authorities have been an integral part of the national effort.
But I know my fellow county and unitary leaders are equally proud of how well their organisations have placed themselves even further at the heart of their communities, providing support right down to the neighbourhood and individual level.
The ability of counties to think imaginatively and reach into their communities has been critical for those most in need during the pandemic, from getting substantive shielding programmes up and running almost overnight, to effectively targeting support to disadvantaged families through local welfare schemes.
Going forward, central government must better recognise and utilise the strategic abilities of local government to deliver national priorities locally, at both scale and pace. Equally, the real localism counties have shown could be a positive legacy of the pandemic, demonstrating that county authorities can do both the strategic, and the local.
My priority in the months ahead is building on local government’s enhanced reputation to place our members at the forefront of the debate on how we lead the economic recovery and deliver social renewal through public service reform.
Many of us are forging ahead with ambitious growth plans, transforming town centres, investing in social reform and helping to re-skill our workforce. But counties need the powers and resources to go much further.
Investment vehicles such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling-Up Fund must be fairly and proportionally distributed to county areas, while there are real opportunities for councils to work closely with central government in delivering investment through the UK Infrastructure Bank, supporting regional and local growth, alongside helping to meet zero emissions targets.
But with the government linking economic recovery with levelling-up, it is devolution that offers the most transformative agenda. That is why the Levelling Up White Paper must retain a focus on setting out how to devolve new powers and resources through a clear and ambitious devolution framework.
The pandemic’s economic impact is all too visible, but it has also exacerbated inequalities and changed the way we think about service delivery with our partners. We must harness our councils’ large-scale reach and commissioning, mixed with intimate local knowledge and understanding of their communities to help tackle the socio-economic legacy of COVID-19.
The CCN will be playing a major role in putting forward solutions for reforms to adult social care, children’s services and special educational needs, while seeking to tackle health inequalities through the new Health and Care Partnership Boards and a focus on population health.
Securing sustainable and fair funding for these services is, of course, a priority.
Nonetheless, it is equally important to consider how we optimise local delivery of services by ensuring that local government remains at the heart of these most community focused services, whilst being given the mandate to deliver closer community based integration on the ground with health partners and the voluntary sector.
Underscoring this must be a relentless focus on how the sector needs to adapt and change in the wake of the pandemic, building a workforce for the future and seizing the opportunities presented by technological innovation and new forms of community engagement. CCN will be at the forefront of considering these issues through a new report with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
There are a great many challenges ahead, but the opportunities are potentially even more significant. I will be making sure the county voice is heard so that our members can play a major role in leading recovery and delivering renewal.
Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman-Elect, County Councils Network