Council services in our hands
Peter Hetherington, The Guardian
With its thousands of volunteers, could the National Trust provide a model for running local parks and libraries as town halls face financial meltdown?
Imagine a country where parks, libraries, leisure centres and a string of other facilities run by the local council are up for grabs; where valuable buildings and assets, from schools to swimming pools and land holdings, are hived off to neighbourhood groups, parish councils, charities or not-for-profit companies.
While public sector unions, and the municipal establishment, might visibly blanch at such a prospect, in the real world that we are now entering, after the insularity of a four-week election campaign, tough choices are looming. Functions seen as important, yet non-essential, face an uncertain future under any new government.
With town and county halls facing cutbacks that seemed unimaginable barely 12 months ago – take your pick from a range of economies ranging from 15% to 30% overall – some of the most respected thinkers in English councils are edging towards a root-and-branch reappraisal of local services.
Well before David Cameron and his advisers coined the ‘big society’ slogan, with all its connotations of DIY delivery, these radical minds were hard at work with their alternative vision of maintaining some local services with little or no cash to support them.
That vision includes mobilising a small army of volunteers in communities to take over services such as libraries, alongside an ambitious new structure, perhaps emulating the National Trust, to run parks and other facilities. A pipe dream? Not according to the man who will assume one of the top jobs in local government, charged with driving self-regulation and greater efficiency in English councils.
Rob Whiteman, chief executive of Barking and Dagenham council, next week takes charge of the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) for local government. He comes armed with far-reaching ideas and a key theme: more for less. His overriding mantra: "Never waste the opportunity of a good crisis."
Whiteman volunteers the National Trust model as one way of filling an emerging hole in town hall finances and maintaining services dear to the heart of many residents. "Getting on to running things is probably going to be more like the National Trust, where we rely on interested parties, volunteers, communities, rather than employing everybody," he says.
"In London, could we have – say – a London Trust that runs our parks and our open spaces and would be accountable to local government which would set it up but would capture the involvement of communities in being able to run their own parks. We’re going to see new models developed where local councils join together to create vehicles for the community to run their own services … where people say, ‘We’ll run that now on a voluntary basis.’"
The radical agenda, being pursued by Whiteman seems to have support across the political spectrum with all main parties embracing ‘localism’ and a devolution of power from Whitehall to town halls, while accepting – in varying degrees – that new forms of delivery will be necessary to maintain services in a much harsher economic climate.
"Ultimately, we need a new constitutional settlement for local government," Whiteman insists. "In a way, we don’t have local government. We have elected councils working alongside quangos and national departments. The way national government can change the form and function of local government at will is unconstitutional in most other countries."
Rising to the challenge of a new job, he quickly warms to this theme: "We need a settlement of what is done at national and at local level and we need constitutional reform and we need devolution. Most independent commentators would now say Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the developed world and the bureaucracy of Whitehall reaches into so much performance now. It’s not only unaffordable, it also no longer does the job – it has reached its crest and there simply isn’t going to be any more improved performance coming out of this clapped-out system."
Whiteman, 48, has a wealth of experience from the private and public sector. A former graduate trainee-cum-store manager with WH Smith, he subsequently served his time as rating officer, financial controller and then deputy chief executive with four London councils – Newham, the Corporation of London, Camden and Lewisham – before taking the helm at Labour-run Barking and Dagenham five years ago.
While taking that challenging east London borough into the top performance league of English local government, he helped the authority to set a new standard for learning and skills programmes, creating 750 apprenticeships along the way – something of a record for local government.
But with savage spending cuts looming, Whiteman, who has an economics and politics degree from Essex University, believes his version of localism can bring substantial economies by giving local government the power to join up services across the public sector.
"The trade-off that will have to be made between priorities are best made locally and I don’t believe that Whitehall departments can decide what is the real priority for any one particular area, whether Barking and Dagenham or any other authority in the country," he insists. "These trade-offs have to be made locally because councils and their partners understand the priorities and the things that really make a difference."
In short, Whiteman believes that greater devolution to localities will help deliver at least some of the economies needed while at the same time joining up overlapping services and making, say, the delivery of social care more efficient.
With growing evidence of councils and government agencies sometimes falling over each other to address the same social care problem, Whiteman insists: "Duplication because of our top-down, silo-based way of doing business is unaffordable and inefficient."
This begs the question of whether a new government will break Whitehall’s centralised culture, forcing it to devolve. And if it does, will communities shoulder the extra responsibilities implicit in the Whiteman agenda? "I think communities will want to do more," he insists. "But even if they didn’t there is still an argument for localism – so that councils, primary care trusts, police command units, further education colleges can see more public money pooled in order that it is more efficiently spent and priorities take place."
Equally, he says, big national "industries", such as Jobcentre Plus, need bringing into line: "They can spend a huge amount of money in a locality but [the organisation] is effectively part of a Whitehall machine rather than part of the local delivery mechanism."
At the IDeA, largely funded by a £25m annual "top-slice" from Whitehall’s revenue support grant to local government, Whiteman has some tough decisions to take. He is preparing for a 40% cut in the organisation’s budget over three years. That will mean both refocusing the IDeA with its 200 staff, while making it more assertive as the self-improvement arm of the Local Government Association group, of which it is part.
Does that mean councils, if necessary, directly challenging a government to live by its localist promises and commitments to scrap an inspection and regulation regime overseen by an expensive Audit Commission?
"I think local government is more confident to do things without waiting for permission. On the whole, most local authorities think we’ve got too much top-down performance management, too much intervention and too much regulation and that, actually, we are increasingly self-confident and can deal with our own improvement, collaborate in order to help each other, but also that we push back on things that are a waste of money or not in the interests of our community."
Jokingly, Whiteman cautions that England is unlikely to see a new age of "Poplarism" – a reference to 30 councillors from the former east London borough of Poplar jailed for six weeks in 1921 for distributing local taxes to the needy, rather than handing them over to the London county council. Nevertheless, he insists: "I think we’re about to see a decade of local government becoming more self-confident and saying, ‘These [Whitehall spending] silos are a waste of public money and we’re going to push back,’ and local government is not just waiting for permission but just wants to get on and deliver in a more effective way. On the ground you are seeing authorities pushing at the edges – integration, for instance, between some councils and [NHS] primary care trusts. But this happens in spite of the system not because of it."
Then, of course, there is the vexed issue of direct community control. "People are interested in their local schools, whether streets are safe," Whiteman says. "How do we turn that into something positive, where the role of local institutions is to be shaped by the community? Because the state will have to roll back in some areas – we might not be able to afford to run, say, every library."
That takes us back to the National Trust with its 3.8m members and 61,000 volunteers. "This is a wonderful institution where some of our great historic buildings are basically kept open and maintained, run by volunteers," Whiteman stresses. "It’s a different delivery model to – say English Heritage – where the state maintains buildings and employs people. Most people would say, if they visit properties, that they think the National Trust is better run. No disrespect to English Heritage, but for public services now, we’re going to see more of a National Trust model."