There is no doubt local government went through a rapid transformation in a matter of weeks in order to meet the challenges of COVID-19, but what does the future hold?
For local authorities grappling with the challenge of planning for recovery while responding to a massive crisis, they are now faced with a further challenge – to seize this as an opportunity, ‘build back better’ and reshape public services.
In our first virtual round table, alongside recruiters Faerfield, The MJ gathered a group of senior chiefs to consider how public services can be ‘reset’ and improved for the future.
Despite the tragedy of the COVID crisis, there have been some benefits. The partnerships – the health and care integration – the community volunteers, the newly found respect for public services.
‘We had to melt quite a few boundaries at speed,’ a council chief executive explains. The trick will be to ‘find new ways of working before some of those boundaries reassert themselves’.
But it may not last. ‘I think it is really fragile. I am seeing it cracking already around the lack of coherence about how local public services need to be funded properly and coherently going forward.’
Coherent funding is an argument that is understood when it comes to the NHS, but local government has ‘never penetrated the psyche of politics, of media, of everything else’. It hampers conversations with the spend departments in central Government.
Instead, in a reset world, we could be thinking about the outcomes, about what the future of public service is delivering for a place. This is not a return to local area agreements but a ‘more sensible way of funding local public services, rather than just this hackneyed discussion about ‘local government is not funded well enough’.
If we are to hang on to integration, we have to be ‘very demanding now on the social care Green Paper’. But it comes with a warning from one of our debaters who said we have a ‘very dysfunctional’ NHS system that ‘needs to be thought through very carefully as we go forward’.
Another wants to see more fundamental service integration right down to neighbourhood level. But there are two issues: there is a lack of capacity to do the systems thinking in the current climate; and it would need devolution.
Much as the social care Green Paper has stalled, so has the devolution White Paper.
‘If we really want to facilitate this kind of thing, we desperately need more devolution. I don’t really care what form it comes in...providing it is out of Whitehall.’
Another chief agreed: ‘I’m a localist. I’m a devolutionist, I believe passionately in the power of public service delivery...and I always believe the strongest bond is at a local level. A lot of things that have been rolled out in the last 11 weeks suggests evidentially that everything that is centralised and top-down misses the point of what public services are really about.’
This is why we critically need a reset for public services. ‘We now have a window of opportunity to…evidence exactly how you drive a reset locally, regionally and nationally in this country.’
One of our debaters offered a note of caution: ‘We are all prone to project the things that matter a lot to us through the prism of recovery.’ Devolutionists argue for more devolution. Environmentalists argue for more sustainability. Those worried about financial resilience pre-COVID know the problems have ‘deepened significantly’.
But, they suggest, there may be a change in public expectations of services and ‘there are some signs that there is some recognition of the importance of the local state having a much more prominent role and we must capture that’.
Our next chief agreed: ‘I know it is a cliché, but we just cannot waste this. We will not get a moment where we can reset the way we could now, but I don’t think the argument is won. There is a huge set of forces that are seeking to rebuild back as before, but actually bigger than before.’
‘If health and care doesn’t get fundamentally reconsidered now then I don’t think it ever will.’
But while the Thursday Clap for Carers became an important part of lockdown, it was fundamentally linked to health, with no equivalent for local government, one chief suggested, despite the ‘truly phenomenal’ efforts on the ground.
It is not just the public that has failed to value care workers. There is a frank admission that social care decisions have been ‘more about unit cost than they were about wage levels’. The consequences of the decisions made in the past decade have now manifested themselves in the crisis.
Now that needs to be addressed while the value of care staff is in the public’s psyche. Increasing the cost of care would support economic regrowth. ‘I don’t think proportionately it would cost that much to get that inequality in our people systems addressed. I think we have got to be unapologetic about that. To build on the sense of public recognition.’
It is not just the care staff who are working hard, the whole of local government is set to be in a state of emergency for a long time to come. One of our chiefs explained: ‘We are passing between the ongoing climate emergency, to the current health emergency, we are at the very beginning of an economic emergency and there is an emerging social emergency. It would be easy to get dragged down in the latest announcements, the latest issue.’
Instead, there is a need to think strategically. ‘I wonder whether this framing of environment, health, economy, social and the prevention agenda may be a way of framing the resource that we make of Government. I believe we should properly resource local government but I have slightly given up on that as an argument on its own.’
That argument often has a tendency to break down into rows over which tier of councils deserves more funding, or local government against central Government, someone suggested, but there has been a ‘ceasefire’. Instead, it has been a single mission, unencumbered by concerns over funding.
When local government’s relationship with central Government is about vying for cash, it is unsurprising that trust has broken down.
The shape, funding and structure of local government make no sense – not least to central Government – and there needs to be some radical thought to change the dialogue and move the conversations on funding towards outcomes rather than inputs.
‘Boldness is essential. We have to settle the issue around the nature and structure of local government,’ we are told.
It has been ‘pretty clear that the best leadership response has been that which has been delivered locally,’ we hear. ‘This is the time for us to really work out whether we are going to be passive in responding to what is asked of us from central Government or whether we will seize the initiative to do what we need to do.
We are in danger of going back to the passive recipient, rather than shaping our own future, our own destiny, and shaping our own places. So I think, seize the moment.’
Round table attendees
Martin Reeves, Coventry City Council
Joanne Roney, Manchester City Council
Robin Tuddenham, Calderdale Council
Paul Nasjarek, Ealing LBC
John Coughlan, Hampshire CC
John O’Brien, London Councils
Kate Kennally, Cornwall Council
Ed Cox, West Midlands Combined Authority
Martin Tucker, Faerfield
Heather Jameson, The MJ (chair)