Sir Peter Rogers
The worst summer for weather has strangely produced a feeling of euphoria throughout the country because of the Olympics and the achievements of our British athletes.
However, now that summer is over, reality has resumed as local authority Chief Executives and their management teams take stock of the difficulties facing them. Last year’s financial results are finalised and with half a year over, they will know whether their ambitious plans they hatched 12 months ago are on track. Directors of Finance will be able to judge their ability to balance the books over the medium term and appreciate the effects on the budget of maintaining standards and dealing with increasing demographic pressures.
As Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’ pointed out: “The ability to match expenditure and income is the only true path to happiness.”
It is natural that local authority leaders will try to protect the front line services which get them elected. Local authority Chief Executives will also endeavour to protect the standards of service that they have worked so hard to deliver. But what is inevitable is that with the rising cost pressures of an aging population and the ever-increasing expectations of an impatient public, new ways of working will be required to enable those services to get the resources they need.
This is a time for visible leadership. It may even be too late for those Chief Executives who are yet to make the changes they require. A blind faith in central government coming to the rescue or a reliance on the sector to produce a magic solution will inevitably lead to disappointment.
Rather, this is a time for local authorities to be clear on their ambitions and their ability to fund them. Difficult choices will have to be made and those things taken for granted may need to stop, or be done by others. Therefore, any opportunity needs to be considered on the basis of what it produces and how long it will take to deliver results.
Local authorities can help each other but the third and private sectors offer opportunities too. Knowing best practise and how to learn and adapt is a new skill set but needs to be learnt quickly within local government. It increases the probability of success, it reduces risk and it speeds up results. It is even better if public and private partners are able to avoid the pitfalls of drawn out procurement exercises where the only parties guaranteed to win are the external advisers whose fees are guaranteed irrespective of the outcome.
Nothing can be regarded as sacred but this is a time when a council’s management team needs to be exactly that; a team that gives where it can to help others deliver what otherwise would be lost.
Corporate shroud waving and warnings of disaster have been widely experienced in the past but cannot be tolerated going forward. Instead there must be an increasing recognition that services can be delivered better internally or by others. It may be that alternative delivery structures within groups of local authorities can offer the step change in costs that is needed.
A ‘summer like no other’ followed by a budget round with a similar description will test the local government sector. Plans will be made and budgets will be created but that is just the start. The plans for their delivery will need to be robust and the risks of backsliding or failure, well managed. Council leaders and Chief Executives will need to be visible and articulate this new reality to their communities. Managing existing citizen expectations will be virtually impossible for many but setting new expectations to match and manage the new financial reality will be a real test of civic leadership.
Sir Peter Rogers
Chair of CapacityGRID and former Advisor to Boris Johnson for Regeneration, Growth and Enterprise at the Greater London Authority.