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.
APSE delegates heard about demand management in Calderdale, income generation by neighbourhood services in Knowsley, house building to support jobs in Broxtowe, energy generation to save money and tackle fuel poverty in Peterborough, commercialisation of facilities management in Wigan and youth apprenticeships in Fife to name but a few... These are different approaches in different services, but they share an ability to link what happens on the frontline of service provision with wider strategic issues, including welfare reform, youth unemployment, lack of affordable homes and an ageing population – not to mention unprecedented budget cuts.
These examples all feature aspects of councils operating in an 'ensuring' way and we have developed the Ensuring Council model, in partnership with the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University, as a positive vision for local government in the next decade and beyond.
The principal role of the Ensuring Council is active stewardship to ensure the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the local area. Reducing the local authority's role to that of a commissioner rather than a provider can leave 'hollowed out' authorities, which lack the capacity to respond coherently and effectively to citizens' needs, so the ensuring approach maintains the strategic advantages of service delivery. It also promotes municipal entrepreneurship through collaborative innovation and income generation. The Ensuring Council places local democratic accountability at the heart of service provision. It endorses collaboration rather than competition and acknowledges the responsibilities of local government for advancing social justice.
The principles of the Ensuring Council were tested out through consultation with officers, elected members and experts from local government bodies and are summed up our Manifesto for the Ensuring Council, launched our recent annual conference in Liverpool. This includes case studies of local authorities that have joined up an active stewardship role with capacity to deliver cost-effective, directly accountable local solutions.
We are not suggesting there are any easy answers to the difficulties local government faces. We are not suggesting specific organisational forms, measures or practices; the ensuring vision is an ethos that informs local ways of working, rather than a prescriptive template. But a fundamental rethink is needed if we are to find viable, long-term solutions to pressing issues and we believe the ensuring alternative can reach parts of local democracy that other models cannot reach.