Recent events in Northamptonshire have hammered home the message that local government has reached a tipping point in terms of its finances. Anyone who thinks that the problems faced at the County Council are unique is in for a rude awakening. In this context is it time for a new municipalism?
With policy pressures piling up and budgets diminishing rapidly for many services it is time for local authorities to take back control of their areas by reclaiming entrepreneurship, rather than the outdated thinking that someone else should do this for them. This is not about acting commercially in the blind pursuit of income generation but to identify the major policy puzzles facing communities and thinking creatively and innovatively about how to solve these policy conundrums. Where markets have failed to deliver the outcomes that local communities need then it’s time for local councils to step up to the plate.
If it’s housing then many councils like Birmingham have established vehicles to directly intervene and build affordable housing for sale and rent in their local area. Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust is now the largest housebuilder in the City.
If it’s about building up the local economy through supporting local businesses and small employers then local authorities like Dumfries and Galloway are using their own multi million capital and maintenance spend to ensure that hundreds of micro employer sub-contractors and suppliers are receiving the maximum amount of nourishment possible to grow and flourish.
If it’s about skilling up the local workforce and creating jobs then places like Swansea are using community benefit clauses to create the maximum amount of opportunities for the population to engage in, to date inserting them into 128 separate contracts.
If it’s about fuel poverty then councils like Nottingham and Bristol have stepped forward and set up their own supply companies to provide low cost energy for those who need it the most.
So, the next time you hear some cynic suggesting that commercial approaches by councils are just about raising more money, tell them it’s for a public policy purpose. The next time someone says municipal entrepreneurship is distorting a local market tell them its about supporting local businesses to prosper and flourish. The next time someone says the council is getting in the way of bringing jobs to the local area tell them it’s the local authority that’s giving the training to develop the skills amongst local people to get them ready for employment. Tell them all, it’s about the council helping to build and retain wealth for its local community.
It’s time to stand up and be counted, it’s time to act more entrepreneurially, it’s time for a new municipalism.