Taking a long hard look at what 'democracy', 'citizenship' and 'ethics' really mean in local government in the second decade of the 21st Century may seem like a luxury when councils are struggling to empty the bins, house the homeless, care for elderly residents and meet a million other demands with ever fewer resources. But reclaiming the vital connection between the mightiest of principles upon which local government was founded and day to day actions that matter to local people is the best way for local authorities to take control in these difficult times.
Last week's BMJ article, which accused local authorities of 'raiding' public health budgets to prop up other services, shows a surprising lack of insight into the reasons why councils actually took on the public health role in the first place. It also fails to grasp well-evidenced connections between health and wider social factors that are dependent upon public services such as housing, sport and leisure, greenspace or school meals.
With the Public Accounts Committee warning central government to sharpen up on procurement and transparency, high profile failures at Serco hitting the headlines and authorities including Liverpool reviewing their private sector partnerships, public service outsourcing seems to have reached a crossroads.
Everyone knows that on top of the financial problems local government faces there is also an ever lengthening list of public policy challenges. From public health to housing, from struggling local economies to climate change, from youth unemployment to the ageing population, councils need to consider how they can deploy the resources and assets at their disposal to ensure maximum public value outcomes for years to come. This calls for flexibility and skills to respond to continuous change.
It’s time for national politicians to show more bravery and think long term if we are to make the money available for public services go much further. Whilst I welcome the Chanecllors announcement of funding for free school meals for junior school children in his Autumn statement I would like him to go much further. In my view one of the best invest to save schemes available would be extending free school meals to all primary school children.
Attended the launch of national community meals week today at the Central Hall in Westminster. APSE’s National Chair Cllr Leon Unczur and myself wanted to show our support for a service that is coming under severe pressure as a result of the budget cuts facing local government.
Hardly a day goes by of late without headlines about gas and electricity price hikes or political rows over energy policies.
Ensuring a sustainable, affordable energy supply is a priority for councils, communities and economies and can be a way of demonstrating real community leadership. As well as needing to cut costs as major energy users, positive action can help tackle fuel poverty and carbon emissions, promote local jobs and investment and ensure a secure power supply for the future. Councils up and down the country - including Stockton-on-Tees, Dudley, Reading, Portsmouth and Southampton to name but a handful – are leading impressive energy initiatives at present.
To the workforce in local government this is your day.
Getting up at the crack of dawn to grit and maintain the roads infrastructure, sweep the streets, clean the schools and public buildings, this is your day.
We've all had enough doom and gloom to last a professional lifetime. So, while not shying away from the huge challenges faced by all councils, we wanted this year's annual conference to look at practical solutions that are already happening in authorities across the UK.