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15 minutes with Jonathan Carr-West: Collaboration is key

As this week’s Local Government Association conference proved, councils are under the spotlight like never before. New Start spoke to Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, about what the shifting sands of public policy might mean for how councils deliver key services

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On what the future holds for the delivery of some public services.
We don’t really know what local government finance looks like over the next few years. We literally don’t know how local government will be funded post 2020, which is a slightly insane situation. Business rates retention has been suspended, there doesn’t appear a ‘plan b’ and the current settlement runs out in 2020. What the hell happens after that? Nobody knows.

We seem to be at an interesting moment, where there is shift in dialogue around the government with ministers saying we need to spend more money. We don’t know whether more money will come into the public sector or not. Everyone I talk to says the sensible assumption is money will be tight and will get tighter.

But there are long-term trends, particularly in relation to care, public space and housing. We know with the changing scale and nature of demand, the state will not be able to fix these all problems. The state could clearly intervene and fix some of the broken elements of the housing market, but the state is not going to be able to house everybody. The state will not be able to grow the economy and insure people have the right skills to operate within it. The big challenges cannot be solved just by the state, they have to be done through collaborative engagement. Everyone has a role to play in that.

Big challenges need more than the state,

they have to be done through collaborative engagement.’

On local authorities entering the housing market

Clearly, there are still significant barriers, but we have already seen a definitive shift in how local authorities might build houses again. Some are building new houses, some are forming arms-length companies to develop the area, and some are managing social housing more effectively. But we at the early stages of this and it is accompanied by a shift in how local authorities see their role, which is more about facilitating things in a variety of ways, rather than having a strictly defined role of delivering services.

On the role community groups have played in delivering public services in the past

We should always remember that a whole load of service delivery happens outside the remit of local government. The majority of care that is delivered in this country is informal and through families and partners. Communities and people have always at the forefront of public service delivery, even if it is not within formal mechanisms. So when we talk about engaging community groups more, to some extent it’s not about creating something new, it’s about bringing something in that already exists. We often forget that. You may be bringing them into the system, but that civic life is already out there and a bigger component of people’s lives than whatever services the public agencies deliver.

But having said that, the story of the last 30 years has been an immense diversification of how services are delivered within the public realm. It has included much more engagement with the private sector, the community sector and a raft of organisations that sit somewhere in between. In the austerity years, that has been sharpened by decreasing council budgets, which has had a double effect.

On the one hand, it has restricted councils ability to do really interesting community engagement work, but on the other it has increased their need to pass some services over to groups, whether that’s residents groups running libraries or using charities managing day centres.

On the need for broader engagement with communities

On the one hand, it’s about getting more people involved and building resilience. It’s important to realise that we do need to do that. If you talk about social care and look at the extent to which the population is aging, the state will never be able to provide the levels of care people need. So you will need broader engagement. You will get better results from that, because you get more innovation and outcomes, which are focused around people’s real aspirations.

But at the same time, the same government is cutting council funding to such an extent that it becomes quite hard to this in a positive way. I’m constantly talking to people in local government who say ‘if only we were doing this in 2007 and do it properly, rather than just passing services over as the only way of continuing it’.

One of the things people said in 2010, when people were still talking about the Big Society, was that would only work in nice, middle class areas. While there is some correlation between multiple deprivation indices and levels of social capital, it can also work the other way.

You see in some deprived communities people coming together much more coherently around particular issues. It’s not the pattern we thought would emerge. It hasn’t quite panned out that way. There are all sorts of factors, so what we see across the country is a really varied picture in how that attempt to engage community within the design and delivery of public services has worked.

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