As we await the recovery and devolution white paper from Government, it will be interesting to see if the summer speeches from ministers that invariably promised ‘putting an empowered local government at the heart of the economic recovery’, will be borne out in reality.
Successive governments have denuded local authorities of powers, finance and resources; stripping the sector back to an emaciated shadow of its former self. If ministers really want councils to play a key role in the recovery of the nation then we need to see more than warm words, we need to see a full-blown rehabilitation of local government in the national psyche.
To do this there needs to be proper recognition of the role of the local authority as the undisputed leader of place, the key actor in helping to deliver a better tomorrow for local communities. When we take the issue of planning for example – a responsibility that is fundamental to driving better outcomes for local people - powers need to be restored not reduced. How can you steer and stimulate a local economy or transform town centres at the very heart of local place if there is continual deregulation of your planning powers?
The upcoming comprehensive spending review represents a great opportunity for ministers. They can show they mean business by putting in place adequate resources for councils over the period whilst signalling a longer-term change by finally tackling the perennial twin problems of fair funding and resourcing social care. It would also be a great opportunity to bolster the notion of a green recovery by placing councils at the heart of the country’s response to climate change. There is a danger that the impetus that was sprung up last year with climate emergency declarations, which stalled during lockdown, is lost before it really started to gain momentum.
Ten years of austerity has thinned out not only the supporting services that councils provide to local communities but also the workforce who deliver this. With the country faced with mass unemployment surely a sensible approach would be to engage some of the economic casualties of the pandemic in a much more locally based recovery by providing productive employment schemes organised and coordinated by local government.
In some senses local government has reached a real low point after the past decade. Yet, despite having taken a battering in so many ways, its continued existence and resilience provides a beacon of hope amidst the current despair. Above all others, local councils are ideally-suited to act as an agent of positive transformation for local people. All that is required to build this better tomorrow is the respect of Government, matched by the powers and resources to deliver.