As we await the Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper from Government, it will be interesting to see if the summer speeches from ministers that promised ‘putting an empowered local government at the heart of the economic recovery’, will be borne out in reality.
Successive governments have denuded local authorities of powers, finance and resources; stripping the sector back to an emaciated shadow of its former self. If ministers really want councils to play a key role in the recovery of the nation then we need more than warm words, we need to see a full-blown rehabilitation of local government in the national psyche.
To do this there needs to be proper recognition of the role of the local authority as the undisputed leader of place, the key actor in helping to deliver a better tomorrow for local communities. When we take the issue of planning – a responsibility fundamental to driving better outcomes for local people – powers need to be restored, not reduced. How can you steer and stimulate a local economy or transform town centres at the very heart of local place if there is continual deregulation of your planning powers?
The upcoming comprehensive spending review represents a great opportunity for ministers to show they mean business by putting in place adequate resources for councils over the period while signalling a longer-term change by tackling the problems of fair funding and resourcing social care. It would also be an opportunity to bolster the notion of a green recovery by placing councils at the heart of the country’s response to climate change.
With the country facing mass unemployment, a sensible approach would be to engage some of the economic casualties of the pandemic in a more locally-based recovery by providing employment schemes organised and co-ordinated by local government.
Despite having taken a battering in so many ways, local government’s continued existence and resilience provides a beacon of hope amidst the current despair. Above all others, local councils are ideally-suited to act as an agent of positive transformation for local people. All that is required to build this better tomorrow is the respect of Government, matched by the powers and resources to deliver.
Paul O’Brien is chief executive of APSE (the Association for Public Service Excellence)