The New Local Government Network has, for more than a decade, been part of the fabric of local government. Set up in 1996, it aimed to set up a new future for local government.
In common with the rest of local government, the NLGN has ridden the ups and downs of the sector, and has had to shift its priorities. The slimmed down team, headed by director Simon Parker and new chair Dr Jane Roberts, is now looking at what the next ‘new local government’ will be.
It’s not an easy task. Creativity and ideas are not the problem – coming up with new models and methods of delivering local government is just part of the job: ‘It’s about harnessing the interesting ideas, the creativity, the challenge, and bottling it so it is able to work on the ground,’ says Dr Roberts.
Dame Jane has a long and distinguished career in the local government sector, and was leader of Camden LBC from 2000 to 2005 – in addition to her parallel career in the health sector. As chair of the Councillors Commission in 2007, she is well aware of the difficulties of coming up with innovative solutions which have to be workable.
She is passionate about the sector and clear about NLGN’s role within it. ‘It is tough times for local government. Now more than ever you need a voice to stand up for it.’
She adds: ‘[Local Government Association chairman] Sir Merrick has done a good job at moving the sector away from whinging about the cuts,’ but with the LGA’s blueprint for the future of the sector, Rewiring Local Government, launched last week to a cool reception from communities secretary Eric Pickles, we are yet to see how successful it will be.
With many councils slashing their policy function, there is a role for the think tank to help formulate policy for those on the ground.
It is just one of the functions of the NLGN in its new incarnation. Simon Parker, suggests that many organisation in the sector fail to rejuvenate and change with the shifts in the role and function of local government. The difference with the think tank is that it has tried to be nimble.
‘It’s a bit like Doctor Who, reincarnating,’ he jokes. And as the fourth director of NLGN – following John Williams, Dan Corry and Chris Leslie – he says: ‘That would make me the fourth doctor.’ He is thrilled when a quick Google search reveals the fourth Doctor in the series is Tom Baker.
Known in the past as the organisation which campaigned for Mayors – among many other things – he says much of its role now is about spreading ideas and what works throughout the sector.
And while Mayors are still appealing, and the NLGN is still supportive, the lack of public appetite means it is not something that will be a major priority.
‘A lot of our work is based on our shared intelligence – the network bit of our name is more important than ever. But we are going to become more political with a small p.’
It is inevitable as we head further towards the next General Election, and the think tank role becomes more prominent. ‘We want to have an impact on the manifestos.’
As a cross-party organisation, the NLGN will be aiming towards influencing all the political parties, but the bigger problem is perhaps the lack of democratic engagement across the country.
‘Local democracy is really important,’ says Dame Jane. As chair of the Councillors Commission, finding ways of getting good candidates to come forward for election was the challenge she was tasked with solving. But now – with the rise of UKIP and the low voter turnout – it seems the bigger problem is engaging the public.
Local government, with its place at the grassroots of democracy, and its efforts to engage local community groups, is at the coalface.
She says: ‘Place is still incredibly important. You could argue it’s even more important.’ There is, she suggests a dilemma over place – that it means different things to different people. Children and older people are more rooted to place, whereas young single adults are less so.
As Dame Jane suggests: ‘How old are most Spads [special advisers]? In their 20s and 30s – do you think they are rooted in place – no.’ And it is the Spads that work with ministers to create the policy agenda. Her suggestion for improving democratic engagement is to lower the voting age to get more young people involved.
However, the idea of compulsory voting gets less of a warm reception. Simon tells The MJ: ‘Compulsory voting implies citizens are the problem. I don’t agree with that.’
He suggests that politicians ignore whole swathes of communities because they don’t vote – hence the focus on protecting the pensions of the elderly who are more likely to turn out at the polling stations. ‘Democracy should be treated as a service,’ he suggests.
For the NLGN, just as with the rest of the sector, the financial situation is dominating the agenda. He says: ‘I think the local government community is starting to get to grips with the fact the cuts will be around for a long time.’
For those in any doubt, communities secretary Eric Pickles made it clear in his LGA that it will be a very long time until local government sees its government grants increase.
‘All the main parties have ran out of ideas on localism,’ he adds, but he claims this gives the sector a ‘window of opportunity’ at the moment to write its own destiny. ‘Whether it leads to anything remains to be seen.’
The think tank has a strong programme for the year ahead, looking at issues such as how local government should tackle public health, the use of technology and driving forward the economy.
All these will look at the future of local government, unlike the History Boys pamphlet launched at the LGA conference, which considered the major achievements of local government in the past. What is most striking about the pamphlet is the major changes driven by individuals.
With little central government direction, it remains to be seen what will happen next for councils. As Simon suggests: ‘Combined authorities are the most interesting game in town.’
He quotes Geoff Mulgan and suggests: ‘The problem with local government is it isn’t local and it doesn’t govern.’ With so many things changing, that may be something that the NLGN will be trying to change.
photo credit: Boyce Duprey