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‘Councils face a cliff edge’: 15 mins with Jo Miller

Jo Miller has been chief executive of Doncaster council since 2012 and is also president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. She talked to New Start about funding challenges, as councils hit breaking point

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What are the big challenges for local authorities in the next five years? I think the big challenge for us as a country, and therefore for local authorities, is that we are kidding the British public. We are not talking to people about the size of the state we can afford and what people are willing to pay for. You can’t have Scandinavian public services and American taxes. We have a plan for the next few years, but the financial solution around business rates in 2020 is no longer there. And is it right to fund public services from property-based taxes, when the world has moved on? So there’s a real challenge to continue to deliver services. We can innovate and innovate, but there comes a time when there’s a breaking point. I’m concerned that some failures we may see will be blamed on local authorities rather than the political choices made at a national level.

In Doncaster alone, we’ve plugged a £110m funding gap in the last four years. I have a plan now until 2020 and I was working on that plan being around business rates and devolution, and that’s gone. We face a big cliff edge. It does not feel like a good way to run a business with that level of uncertainty.

How is the relationship between councils and their communities changing? As a place-shaper convening everybody in place, a local authority’s fundamental role is to make sure communities thrive. It’s our raison d’etre. Community comes in many different forms, whether it is a geographic community or a community of interest. It’s about seeing all of those groups as resources, and everybody working together to share the rewards. To enable communities you start by understanding them, which means listening to, working with and capturing their ambitions. It also means leading them and doing things with and alongside them, not for and to them. If I think about Doncaster, working alongside our communities and the change we have made over the last few years, then rather than providing a fairly monolithic state provision, we have changed to see people as assets and what they can do for themselves.

Will more services be delivered by communities and citizens? Yes, although they will always need support in one way or another. One of Doncaster’s best parks – Sandall Park- is predominantly run by a friends group. We still support it in terms of helping them with their events, but that park is more well-loved and well-used than it ever was before. It has also achieved investment from external sources, which would have been difficult to get if it had just been a council park. Our libraries have just over 130,000 hours a year of volunteering.

We have changed what we do in youth services, so we don’t have a generic offer to young people. Instead it is run by the Youth Alliance, which is a voluntary of partners who have come together. It’s delivering better contacts and engagement with young people than a council-run youth service ever did.

How are you helping develop a strong and inclusive local economy? Mayor Ros Jones’ absolute priority is to deliver a thriving economy. She calls it ‘good growth’, which is economic growth that all of the people of Doncaster can benefit from. That is our fundamental priority. We see strong economic growth and strong cohesive communities as two sides of the same coin. For us, people’s pride in this place and all the volunteering helps to encourage civic pride. When it comes to using our own money, we prioritise the Doncaster pound and we make sure we spend as much of our money in Doncaster. Our spend in Doncaster has significantly increased from around just under 60% to 74% and that’s what we have done to enable our economy to thrive.

Has the council become more entrepreneurial as well? It could not do what it has always done. What we are clear about is we want to be the best we can be, but that will require us to work in a different way.

What are the main challenges for Doncaster’s economy? Doncaster has been massively deindustrialised. It has started from a low base. We are seeing lots of change in the right direction: education and skills levels are still not as strong as elsewhere and median wage rates are still below those for Yorkshire and Humberside. We have lots of land and ambitious plans. We just got the new national college for High Speed Rail, but we are not a university borough. That’s been a gap for us. It means lots of young people have left and not come back. We know that skills are at the heart of transforming where we are. We also need to remind the rest of the UK that being a borough of 305,000 people and almost as big as Iceland, we have a big offer. We don’t have that city tag, but we think and act like a city instead.

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