For the last year, we’ve seen widespread talk of the ambition for a fully devolved government across England. The impact of COVID-19 and rumours of the devolution white paper have accelerated the debate, with many councils now getting on the front foot to drive structural reform.
Having supported Dorset and Buckinghamshire with their local government reorganisation and as delivery partner to the 101 Towns involved in the Towns Fund, it feels a good time to reflect on the issues we see as defining the future shape of government on a local and regional level.
The new local
COVID-19 has shone a light on the strengths of local government and community organisations, who have responded to challenges in ways not commonly seen. We have now all spent longer than ever living (hyper) locally in our neighbourhoods over the last few months, better understanding local dynamics and the depth of connections, opportunities and challenges in our immediate communities.
The role of the community groups, towns and parishes are all valuable in understanding and meeting everyday local needs, helping us reflect on the tiers of government above us, how they can each best play a role, but also provide the best value for money in doing so.
Following Michael Gove’s Ditchley Lecture, and the LGA’s paper on Rethinking Local, it’s clear local government reorganisation is in the air. Rumours abound for emboldened parish and town councils, the expansion of combined authorities, more mayors and unitary councils and the abolition of districts, giving us the chance to reflect on who is truly best-placed to make decisions and take actions for and with our places and our citizens.
Finding a voice
Beyond questions of structures and governance, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of data and insight to build a rich picture of communities; listening, learning and proactively supporting our people and places through recovery. This is something we’ve seen successfully implemented across the country, in London boroughs like Hackney for instance.
Moving towards a more data-driven and community-centred approach will ensure, no matter the structure of government, that we continue to support those most in need. Not just the most vocal. Driven by insight and data, projects like Towns Fund aim to level-up over 100 towns across England, focusing on places and helping local authorities engage with their communities and partners to create sustainable change by the people, for the people. And larger authorities have demonstrated they can successfully engage with communities in places like Wiltshire and Camden where community area boards and citizen assemblies provide a voice for residents.
It’s clear that government is intent on changing the machinery to address the large 21st-century challenges we face on climate and care, to name just two. Redesigning government (should) start with asking: At what level of government are problems best solved? What are the optimal structures and what types of governance, partnerships and institutions can best play a role in solving complex social challenges?
Form follows function, but all functions must be considered. It’s proven time and again that a blanket, one-size-fits-all-approach does not work as different regions face different challenges. As Michael Gove highlighted, the devolution of power and bold, persistent experimentation is a driver for public policy innovation. We need only look at the United States where 50 governors have the authority and mandate to lead 50 semi-sovereign republics.
Whatever the level of government, we see time and again that high performing organisations exhibit high levels of consistency to enable high levels of autonomy. So as we consider the nature and shape of local government restructuring, how might we ensure just enough consistency of approach to provide sufficient reassurance, while enabling the autonomy needed to meet unique regional challenges?
We’re already supporting many organisations to do this, getting ahead of the game now to decide the ways to move forward, before any long-awaited mandate. Greater Manchester is again asking to be a pilot for the next phase of joining up social care with NHS services. And in North East Lincolnshire the Council and CCG are already working together closely to deliver health services, establishing their own Union Board to integrate the organisations as closely as possible and jointly commission social care and public health services.
Embracing regional integration and driving experimentation means designing structures and institutions that work for residents to address both the short-term economic impact and the longer term agendas that we all face. Restructuring is only worth the huge time and financial investment if it frees local places to develop a model that truly supports communities to take on the big and long-term social issues.
One thing that isn’t yet clear is how political structures will fit within this. While central government appears to like the concept of combined authorities and regional mayors, it lacks clarity about their mandate and the interplay with councils in this next iteration.
Combined authorities will be part of the solution no doubt. But their shape and nature, and the mechanisms which sit below this, will be a key design consideration to ensure that local government remains local, with the right insight and intelligence with communities. Perhaps the future of unitaries may ultimately be decided by the pandemic, and with it how, health and social care becomes more aligned.
Right now is our opportunity to decide the role of local government in the 21st century. There’s no doubt the next round of restructuring is coming and it will impact people in many ways. And in the wake of COVID-19, the current financial envelope means fewer people will be involved in the delivery of services. This will be difficult. It will take selfless, courageous people to embrace change and influence it to make a significant difference in people's lives with residents firmly at the heart of any design.
We have right now, the opportunity to design a system which can work for all and address the major issues of our time. With the coming back together of councils post-crisis, with the creation of new institutions locally and regionally, how might we take this once in a lifetime opportunity to leave the broken bits of our bureaucracies in the past and think forward to truly 21st-century ways of structuring government to meet 21st-century challenges? Forming highly digitally-enabled (culturally as much as technologically), fluid, open, connected, data-driven organisations with people at their heart. The right scale of challenges tackled at the right level of government.
This is the time to be bold about the future of our places. To lead the invention of the right solution for our regions and start to make it happen. Bringing organisations and communities together around a local place, blending top-down and bottom-up approaches and taking the lead in rethinking the local. This is the time for local government to be the advocates and leaders of reform.
Ben Ward is a Partner at Ameo and Lesley Seary is Non-Executive Director at FutureGov