Has the unthinkable become everyday for local government?

04 March 2013

By Andy Ford, Partner, PwC

Local government doesn’t seem to get much good news these days - a challenging financial settlement, diminishing support from central government, further spending cuts ahead, and even blame for the horsemeat scandal.  We’ve been working with the New Local Government Network (NLGN) to try and imagine the future for local government beyond the jaws of doom.

Kicking off the project, two teams of council chief executives spent 24 hours ‘gaming’ the future and ‘thinking the unthinkable’ for the fictional place of Anyborough.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken Anyborough on the road and hosted roundtable discussions in Birmingham, Leeds and London to see what Anyborough can tell us about the real issues councils are facing across the country.

Local government has had to think the unthinkable for quite a while now. Cutting services, integration, demand management – all part and parcel of the day job for council officers.  What is in danger of happening, however, is that while everyone knows what should be done, a rush and a push is needed to actually deliver the change needed.  While budgets are being balanced in the short term, we know that further spending cuts are around the corner and councils need to pick up the pace on transformation and prepare for the longer term.

What Anyborough did show us is that councils in 2018 will look very different.  Councils need to make tough financial decisions which will have an impact on the services they can deliver and the outcomes they can enable.  Some thought the 'footprint' of local government activity would have to get smaller – a finding supported by our 2012 Local State We’re In survey, others saw the role of councils shifting from delivering services to shaping, influencing and leading places.

However, while any number of ways to cut Anyborough’s budget were offered up, less was on the table when it came to thinking about the wider place and the growth agenda in particular.  Although economic growth alone is unlikely to snap shut the jaws of doom, councils do need to have an indepth understanding of the drivers of their local economies to be able to take decisions and make strategic investments that can enhance an area’s economic potential.

What is also apparent is that the future of local government cannot be determined by councils alone.  Local authorities need to work with partners across the public sector, as well as overcoming the mistrust that sometimes characterises relationships with the private sector.  And they need to work with their residents, to develop a good understanding of how their communities work and begin honest conversations about public expectations.  Thinking the unthinkable is all very well; the hard work of doing the unthinkable must now begin.

Look out for the final report in April 2013.

Andy Ford
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