Breaking boundaries
19 April, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director, New Local Government Network

Local newspaper headlines in south London have become depressingly lurid in recent months, depicting communities riddled with a drug-fuelled gang culture. Whatever the realities of violent crime in the capital – which is not, in truth, as bad as the scare stories suggest – there is little doubt that many urban neighbourhoods are facing a stubborn challenge, namely the persistent dysfunctional consequences of social failure and family breakdown.

National politicians from all parties are right to react with seriousness to what can seem a senseless and inexplicable crime problem. But how are we going to change direction and actually deal with these issues on the ground?

Political parties based in Westminster might be able to legislate or create new budgets, but ultimately the solutions will emerge street by street, in the local community itself, rather than from on high. We need a radical shift in the way we come together as a society to solve our new social problems, which requires a different form of local leadership, cutting through the bureaucracy that too often hampers the sort of timely and caring intervention that can make a real difference.

At the New Local Government Network, we believe passionately that local success requires a wholly different way of working between council officials, social workers, police, probation, employment service, housing teams, health officials and magistrates.

We are at the early stages of learning lessons from past failures, and the advent of local strategic partnership working, pooling budgets and improved mutual accountability between local agencies is all positive.

But we need to go further still. Avoiding the “pass the parcel” approach to local responsibility is crucial. A local service delivery agent should have a much stronger incentive to step up to the plate and lead – even in areas which are not formally within their remit.

The changing nature of families means that services for young people must not end at the school gate, or at the door of the job centre. Instead the local state should reorganise and place continuity of care for that individual at the forefront of system design.

Harriet Harman MP this week will call for a new cabinet member for the family to coordinate support for families across an authority, another sign that the government is moving towards a much greater role for elected members to facilitate a dialogue between members of the local community – particularly the most excluded – and local service providers.

The way that councils are organised needs to be constantly revisited, especially if artificial boundaries mean that the “nine to five” culture doesn’t fit the realities of urban neighbourhood life.

Some of the unsung heroes in the public service today are the outreach youth workers, who make the links and form relationships with young people who would otherwise never hear a friendly offer of help or assistance. Ironically, these are the frontline services that are too frequently targeted for local budget reductions, because their voice is quiet and there are too few fighting their corner.

The same applies for youth social work and for children in care or leaving care. Could we give councils more latitude to innovate here?

Perhaps allowing the local voice to be heard in the criminal justice system would be a start. And could the piloted community justice centre model as seen in Liverpool be rolled out urgently elsewhere?

The recent Lyons inquiry report on the future of local government suggested that councils are the natural “place shaping” institutions, but doesn’t this mean a serious new leadership role for local authorities across all local agencies?

I believe councils should be given a say on the budgets and appointments of other local agencies, as a real incentive to force joint working. Councils should also have a much stronger presence in the local criminal justice system, acting as the conduit between local residents and the machinery of the law.

Of course, no matter what improved services are offered to young people in our cities, there will still be appalling examples of law-breaking that occur. But a step change is needed in the thinking of how we move from national hand-wringing to real and practical action on the ground – and local government has to be part of this solution.

· Chris Leslie is the director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN). He is speaking at an NLGN debate tonight with the family justice minister, Harriett Harman, entitled Wise council? The changing role of local authorities in family and social policy.