A new approach to a new team
21 June, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director

So how should the local government family greet the new Prime Minister? Setting aside the partisan bouquets and brickbats, it is the newness of the top of Government that will provoke the most interesting challenges. A decade of Blair has led to a degree of familiarity over policy, style, and personalities that will immediately disappear. Suddenly there is a new team with different ideas and alternative ways of working. Anything that refreshes Whitehall should be welcomed by local authorities desperate for that next step in the maturity of central – local relations. Most new chief executives realise that swift decisiveness in the first few weeks presents the best chance for embedding major change, and so too for a new Prime Minister. It is all too easy to fall back on suspicions and cynicisms as the default reaction to sweeping change, but if local government is to convince the centre that it offers the best vehicle for improvements in service quality and trust in the public realm, then it would do well to have a positive and open mind to new ways of working.

Local leaders must step up to the plate and speak up for their patch in a new way, not through the old prism of traditional demands for money that has created the council caricature too often painted in Westminster. As old prejudices are gradually falling away, it should increasingly dawn on new Ministers that they can treat competent councils as their best allies in the ‘delivery’ mission, rather than acting defensively and hoarding control at the centre. I believe that our best local authorities far outshine the departmental performance of Whitehall, an impressiveness that should encourage a new Prime Minister to trust councils with more responsibility.

There will be teething troubles; there hasn’t yet been a Prime Minister able to completely resist the temptation to grab a major problem by the scruff of the neck and placate a baying media with a centrist ‘quick fix’. Yet this new PM is extremely conscious of the need to rebuild wider confidence in public decision-making. He yearns for a more authentic dialogue between the public and their elected representatives. Local government must offer this solution, even if it means more hard work on the ground.

Councils should also consider an offer that the new Ministerial team will find hard to resist – to take away the blame and tough decisions normally languishing in the Secretary of State’s in-try. Leaving tough choices on funding formulae and grant distribution with Ministers has been too convenient for too long. Devolution shouldn’t just mean taking the ‘fun bits’ away from Ministers – it should mean taking the toughest bits away too. So a clever LGA move would be to immediately offer Ministers the counter-intuitive olive branch, with a promise to design its own agreed solutions across councils on funding and resource allocation.

Gordon Brown has great experience from the Treasury vantage of how strong local leadership can aid in the drive for growth and prosperity. His emphasis on economic effort will continue to be his passion when in dialogue with local government. This is an important responsibility that demands tough local choices on planning, regeneration, housing and skills. Councils should expect to be tested more than ever, but if successful the long term rewards of devolution and trust could be the real prize.