Yesterday’s blog on Lord Heseltine’s report caused a bit of a stir – well, with me at least. The post raised the question of what a local authority’s core business is. It suggested that, given the many other bodies whose core, and in some cases sole, focus is economic growth, arguing for unitary authorities as a tool for economic growth could cause harm through deflecting focus from the core role of councils.
I strongly believe that now is not the right time to start imposing re-organisation on local government, but more on that later.
However, I also strongly believe that economic growth is absolutely core business for any local authority. In the corporate sector we love our ‘mission statements’ (why we exist) our ‘vision statements’ (where we’re going) and our ‘strategies’ (how we’re going to get there). Being provocative, I might, and often do, argue that a local authority’s mission statement should be to make itself redundant. Not particularly motivating for staff with long term career ambitions, I do accept, but hopefully you get my drift. Of course that will never happen. There is a reason local authorities came into being and there will always be a need for a level of publicly funded services.
Whatever your personal views on how broad or how narrow the role of the state in our lives should be, what cannot be denied is that in the present financial climate local authorities need to focus not only on delivering services as efficiently as possible, but managing down demand for those services. To me, stimulating local economic growth is fundamental to achieving that, and should be regarded as ‘core business’ of a local authority just as much as social care or refuse collection.
As a northerner and someone whose favourite city on earth is Liverpool, the Governments in which Lord Heseltine has served will never be ones I recall with fondness, indeed quite the opposite. But as an individual he has always been absolutely focussed, even obsessive, about stimulating economic growth in the regions, and his words should carry more weight than those of many other politicians who opine on this subject. I met him last year and had the temerity to suggest that monies from the Regional Growth Fund were perhaps not flowing through into actions as quickly as some of us might have hoped. He swatted me (and my question) away as if I were an irritating fly, but did it so brilliantly that I felt almost privileged.
I tend to agree with the report’s recommendations about unitary authorities. As Heather Jameson, the MJ editor, suggested last week in her excellent commentary (£) (if you haven’t read it, do), if we were inventing local authorities now we wouldn’t start from here. However, the last thing local government needs now is to start looking inwards at its structure, rather than outwards at serving its customers. As a veteran of previous re-organisations and proposed re-organisations I know how much time and energy (as well as cost) they consume and this is absolutely the last thing we need now.
Instead, what we should focus on is making the best use of what we do have, which is some extraordinarily talented and innovative leaders in our authorities (both officers and members) who can collaborate across boundaries to deliver regional growth which benefits all Councils… whatever their size and shape.
Oh, and a propos of nothing, as I bought my morning caffeine fix to stimulate drafting this, I noticed that, in Costa Coffee land at least, the first of November marks the start of Christmas. Bah humbug.