“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous words might well describe the world of local government today and could be the motto of some chief executives. As council budgets are cut, there is a band of people who see an opportunity to change the status quo when it comes to partnerships with the private sector in their local area.

And that local area, as the participants in the Your Local Future workstream at this year’s SOLACE Summit discovered, is not the local authority.

So, if the council is not the place – obvious to many but difficult for some to accept – how do we define what is, and who should be involved in the change process?

Economic progress, which underpins so much of what councils wish to achieve, will necessarily involve the private sector. However, this needs to be true involvement in ways businesses understand. This can become an uncomfortable situation for all sides.

Neither likes ceding control – not the private sector leaders who respond and deal with issues swiftly, nor the politicians correctly claiming democratic legitimacy. Adhering to the usual comfortable stand-off between the two is not suitable for places of the present never mind of the future. Something has to give.

There is some idea of where that movement will come from in the phrase “the council is not the place”.

The chief executives in the workstream were confident in being able to share responsibility for place-shaping with the private sector. Private sector representatives, from developers to car manufacturers, revealed their readiness to engage on this agenda – reinforced by real-world experience in the Midlands where this approach is taking hold.

The elephant in the room was, perhaps predictably, elected members. There is a real challenge in marrying democratic accountability, local representation and the needs of a place.

What are seen as bureaucratic procedures – the drawn-out scrutiny process, the inability to make snap decisions – need to change to match the expectation of a business community wanting to grasp the nettle.

Similarly, the private sector needs to marry its myriad corporate social responsibility agendas to fit in with local areas and help define the place.

Those who manage to pull off this trick will be the ones seeing their names written among the stars. Those who don’t will remain in the gutter.

James Noakes, sustainability and climate change manager, Wigan MBC; Anisa Patel, policy projects officer, Blackburn with Darwen BC; Participants in the Solace Springboard Future Leaders Programme

This article first feature in the Local Government Chronicle on 15 November 2012

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