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100 days in office and all that...

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

We've been on a bit of a summer recent here at WLLG towers but when the chance comes to publish a guest post - especially one from the excellent Rob Foster who usually writes over at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk and tweets @futuresinfinite on the twitter. Do check out his blog but before that do check out his take on the first 100 days of the new Government and what it means for local government.

The government has now passed the 100 days in office mark, & thus it’s time for some early reflections.  Of course in a five year term the first 100 days is a largely symbolic & possibly overworked milestone, but alongside some significant parallel developments it is a good time to consider the main features of the post-election landscape for local government.

Devolution remains the biggest, if not only, game in town for councils looking to evolve beyond the confines of prolonged demise by a thousand cuts.  Many local authorities are currently publicly committed to exploring the options whilst working frantically behind the scenes to make deals, forge alliances & develop Combined Authority (or other) proposals.  The government’s emphasis on local devolution tied to the elected Mayoral model is a concern for many, especially non-metropolitan areas who perceive the threat to their influence & independence. Despite this, the consensus seems to be that it’s better to be in a proposal than not. Quite how this will be resolved following the September deadline for submissions is unclear: it’s hard to believe that there won’t be areas left wholly outside of the vanguard.  This then raises the danger of a set of “off the peg” models being developed centrally in attempt to please everyone, effectively pleasing no-one & nullifying the innovation and place-centric possibilities that are the foundation of devolution’s purpose.  The asymmetric approach is, in my opinion, correct given how wide the “readiness” gap is for greater responsibilities & opportunities, but this does mean there will be considerable dissonance across the sector.

Lord Kerslake’s recent call for input into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for reform, decentralisation and devolution is a further step in this direction.  

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Capacity, Confidence, Cash, Consent and Competence – Manchester, Greg Clark and the challenges of devolution

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

Five years ago the coalition Government made a commitment to decentralisation and to moving powers away from Whitehall and towards local government – and other local structures.

At the time I tried to lay out a series of qualifying factors which I felt would be crucial to making the process a success – lacking any other unifying theme I called these the four Cs of decentralisation – capacity, confidence, cash and consent. With Greg Clark MP taking over from Eric Pickles and looking keen to truly ignite the devolution agenda it seemed like a good time to review those themes, adjust the discussion for five years of political debate, and see what they might mean for colleagues in the Greater Manchester region and beyond.

In discussing capacity, I argued that local authorities needed to skill up to be able to take on a wider role, both at an officer level and member. I felt, and I still do, that the ability of often small local authorities to have the depth of experience skill and capacity to take on additional roles and functions is limited – especially at this time of severe cuts. In many ways this is being addressed by the formation of wider groups of local authorities, be they from Greater Manchester, the county of Cambridgeshire or beyond. Perhaps this is reflective of the Government recognising this capacity issue or perhaps this is more of a coincidence. Either way, I think that local government needs to take this capacity issue seriously.

I pitched the idea of confidence mattering mainly because I felt that there was a general lack of forward thinking confidence in the sector – after twenty years of performance indicators and central controls the ability to think for ourselves was perhaps lacking. I think this has improved over the last five years but the Government have also played their part by making sure that only those councils, and groups of councils, who really wanted it have been granted the opportunity to sign these deals with the treasury.

I think this is probably right. Just because I believe in the devolution agenda being the right one in the long term does not mean that I support the idea of passing over powers to councils, or regions, that have made no indication that they want them or that they have any idea what to do with them. Yes, this will lead to an unbalanced policy position but I think pragmatism is more important at this stage. However, my hope is that as regions show what they can do with the new powers it gives others the confidence to want more.

When I wrote my piece in 2010 I had no idea of the scale of cuts that were to come for the sector. However, in many ways local government’s success in meeting the cuts agenda whilst Whitehall has floundered has one positive; it has shown that local government has a level of competence when it comes to managing budgets that is not matched in the other parts of the public sector. As friend of the blog Jonathan Flowers has commented local government is in a position to say to the Government ‘if you pass us the axe we can make the cuts, as long as we then get to keep the handle’.

Although I recognise that the cash I thought might be passed to local government is not coming it is clear that any programme of real devolution needs to be accompanied by real cash – and that any money passed across has the potential to provide resilience and depth to strained local budgets. It’s not perfect but the Manchester agreement shows that the Government recognises that devolution needs to be accompanied by cold hard cash. More will have to be offered, and Whitehall will have to relinquish more control of it, if any devolution is to have half a chance of being a success –especially whilst the cuts are at the levels they are.

This leaves us with consent – perhaps the most important element of my initial analysis five years ago. At the time I was thinking about the consent needed for community groups, possibly from small sections of a community, to take over running local assets. However, the issue of consent is far deeper than that. If local people don’t feel that they can identify the link between their votes and the decisions made then the legitimacy of the devolved areas is certainly suspect. I think George Osborne has spotted this, hence his demand that areas receiving the new powers, and the money, have elected mayors. I’m not sure this is really enough – titular accountability is fine but with local democracy in relatively poor state of repair (well, all democracy really) I can’t help but feel that more devolution needs to be accompanied by deeper and far more meaningful participatory democracy.

It is not enough to pass power from Central Government to local government if the decisions made by the local councils feel as remote as the decisions currently made. I hope that the consideration of this issue is able to move beyond just that of an elected mayor.

The four Cs seem to have held up fairly well over the past five years and still seem relevant to the decisions being made by Mr Clark and co. However, I think the current devolution deals have identified a crucial fifth C – competence.

In many ways we are still in the experimentation phase – and what happens next is going to matter very much indeed. If places like Manchester (by which I mean the Manchester region of course), Cambridgeshire and West Yorkshire can make a success of the devolution the momentum for change will become unavoidable. However, if they mess it up it won’t take long for the clarion calls of centralisation and the dead hand of the Treasury to demand that devolution is reversed.

 

I really hope that devolution is a success and that the next five years see rapid progress towards a more local and accountable form of Government and whilst my 5 Cs are fairly crude means of analysis I’ll be keeping my eyes on them over the next few years. I just wonder if I’ll be writing another post on the same issue in five years! 

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The next steps for equalities?

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

We like a guest post and today’s is one based on cold hard research.

The topic is one that local authorities have long struggled with; that of equalities or more precisely how we, as the council, can use our role to make a real difference to the lives of those who are disadvantaged or discriminated against. This post looks at what can be done beyond what they describe as the ‘standard 6’ actions we all know and recognise.

So, without further ado enjoy today’s post from Joy Warmington from Brap (@JWmusesthis on the twitter); it provides good food for thought.

Here’s a quick question for you. For every £100 that a man working in Birmingham earns, how much do you think a woman earns? Ninety five pounds? Ninety pounds? Maybe as low as £85?

We’ll reveal the answer at the end, so while you’re mulling that here’s another one. The unemployment rate for White people in Birmingham is about 9%. What’s the rate for Black people? If you doubled 9%, try again. The answer is actually three times higher – 26%. The unemployment rate for Pakistani and Bangladeshi residents is similarly out of kilter, currently standing at 18%. But here’s the really interesting thing. Back in 2004 the White unemployment rate was 6% while the Black rate was 18% – again three times higher. Over the course of a decade, despite all its strategies and plans, the city was unable to reduce this stark inequality.

Why is this? Well, it’s not just Birmingham that’s been asking these questions. A number of cities – from Plymouth to Sheffield to York – have held fairness commissions in recent years to understand why entrenched inequalities persist. As useful and, in some cases, penetrating as these commissions have been they have tended to ignore the nuts and bolts of how public agencies ‘do’ equality – how they go about tackling discrimination, eradicating social patterns of disadvantage, and fulfilling their legislative equalities duties. This is a serious gap. Understanding why these approaches have failed may go some way to explain why serious inequalities continue.

New research providing a bird’s eye view of equalities practice down the decades shows that many ideas have been resistant change. Whereas society has changed greatly over the last 30 years, our equalities tools have remained remarkably similar. For example, in 1984 Birmingham City Council set up a Race Equality Unit with the aim of addressing institutional racism and improving access to council services. By 1989 the Unit had 31 staff, including race relations advisers in housing, education, and social services. The Unit’s annual report for that year shows its activities included training, monitoring uptake of services, helping different departments devise race equality schemes, improving access to services (mainly by translating information), and organising outreach events. If you were to include something about community development (helping local community groups to support disadvantaged people) these activities would all be part of the Standard Six – the half a dozen key actions that have dominated equality strategies and policies over the decades. They’re the things that crop up time and time again, regardless of the organisation’s sector or the demographics of its service users. Ideally, equality approaches would be dynamic – constantly evolving as we better understand what works. Unfortunately, this generally hasn’t been the case.