Making change happen

By Thomas Bridge | 23 November 2016

Local government is facing unprecedented pressure on multiple fronts. From social care to devolution, the looming impact of Brexit to the future of council structures, the sector is fighting a huge number of battles.

Sandra Dinneen, it seems, is working to find a solution to almost all of them.

We meet at the offices of the District Councils’ Network (DCN), where she has been chair of the chief executives’ group for 18 months while also sitting on the Local Government Association/Department for Communities and Local Government business rates steering group. In the East of England, she is chief executive of South Norfolk DC and on the executive board of her local Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP).

Despite grappling with so many pressures – or, perhaps, because of it – her bullish determination to fight for the sector is clear.

‘I keep going until I get told “no”, rather than asking for permission in the first place,’ she says.

‘There are a lot of people who say “oh, you could never do that”. Why not? Of course you can. Have you ever tried?’

Her vision for the future of the sector is coupled with high expectations for those working within it. While Sandra has much to praise about the way local government is moving forwards, she has a long list of what she would like to see improved.

Devolution and the STP agenda mean whole-system change is embedded in local government. But Sandra suggests greater changes are required in the local government mindset.

‘We need to get over the hump of “we’re trying to do this” to “we’re doing this”.

‘I see lots of documents that say things like “ we should”, “we could”. Why don’t we say “we will” because once we’ve made a commitment we have to get on and do it, won’t we.’

Crucial to progress will be an improved relationship between central and local government, she argues.

Whitehall’s approach to health and welfare reforms need to take a more ‘holistic view’ if they are to work, while the reforms to local government finance will need careful consideration.

‘Localisation of business rates is great, but we need to make sure we are not just shunting one thing for another, that we’re thinking about how to have a sustainable system, moving forward.’

It would be easy to only encourage local government to change its approach but Sandra is instead central to change under way in South Norfolk.

With its companies on housing development and building control, she says the district is a ‘huge advocate’ for commercialisation while profit ‘is not seen as a dirty word’ but invested back into public services.

Interest surrounding the housing development firm alone is so high the council has run an information session for interested parties.

‘I think there needs to be a shift in terms of being a bit more willing to make your own luck and your own income,’ she adds.

Access to significant funding and powers to raise money should come with devolution. With regions across the country recently turning down deals offered by the Government, Sandra says greater clarity is needed over what those holding out for more can expect.

She says while communities secretary Sajid Javid has stressed an elected mayor is needed for a gain-share deal, ‘a bit more about what you can achieve without a mayor is what is needed.

‘A lot of people are making decisions about whether they like something or not without the full knowledge of what the implications are,’ she warns.

While a recent survey revealed two- thirds of DCN members were involved in devolution deals, Sandra stresses that the idea of a metro mayor has been ‘much easier to get across’ in highly populated areas. However, district authorities and rural locations will be crucial to ensuring national growth and cannot be leapfrogged when powers are being handed down.

‘Something that recognises the contribution to the UK economy from areas outside big cities is really important and I think that is what is lacking in the current process.’

The debate around the best way to boost local economies has recently focused on the structure of councils themselves.

A report from the County Councils’ Network and EY found transforming all remaining two-tier areas into county-based unitaries could save £2.9bn over five years – 68% more than creating two unitaries in each county area.

Mr Javid also waded into the debate, telling counties unitary status ‘can be a great model’.

Considering the research and Mr Javid’s speech, Sandra stresses the importance of ‘place’ and the recognition of functional economic areas.

‘The principle of devolution you constantly hear is about subsidiarity – so trying to make sure you deliver things and make decisions as close to the people they affect as possible. There’s an inherent conflict in saying a structure around organisations that have existed for some time is where your next lot of thinking should be based.

‘We should be thinking about what is right for localities and then see how that works upwards in terms of what it looks like, rather than starting from institutional boundaries and working downwards. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it.’

Sandra adds that the communities secretary has learned the issues facing local government ‘pretty quickly’ given that he did not come from a background in the sector. Yet she admits that ‘as with a number of people, the nuances of district/county local government is probably something he has yet to fully understand’ as it ‘takes a little bit of thinking about’.

However Sandra says the sector is benefiting from Mr Javid’s ‘business nuance’ and she welcomes the new pressure he has placed on housebuilders surrounding land-banking.

Working as a chief executive for the past eight years has meant Sandra has witnessed significant changes across local government.

She says the sector is still ‘quite a male- dominated environment’ but highlights key figures such as Society of Local Authority Chief Executives president Jo Miller and the Department for Communities and Local Government’s permanent secretary Melanie Dawes as evidence that the balance is changing.

She is clearly hugely ambitious about the sector continuing to adapt and improve itself. That drive suggests Sandra will remain a key player in shaping change for many years to come.

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