Municipal enterprise on the rise?

A great article from Tribune:

Let’s get vocal about local enterprise

Mark Bramah says it’s time to stop the erosion of local government and usher in a new era of municipal innovation

THE late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a golden age of municipal enterprise with major advances in public health and sanitation, slum clearance and the creation of municipal housing. There was also the provision of public education, parks, museums and libraries. The might of civic leaders and the flowering of civic pride in that era are best represented in the gothic town halls that still dominate the centres of many of our major towns and cities.

Localism came in many different forms, from the liberalism of Joseph Chamberlain, Mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s and later a Conservative minister, to the municipal socialism of Herbert Morrison, leader of the London County Council in the 1930s.

However, the role of local government has been eroded in the past 60 years. Responsibility for major national services, such as health, water, housing and education, has been removed from effective local control with the increasing influence of Westminster and the Treasury. Responsibility for delivering services has been transferred to individual schools, housing associations and private contractors. In many cases, councils have become merely the conduit for transferring cash from central government to those who now deliver services.

Fortunately, there are signs of a new wave of municipal renaissance, as local authorities become more enterprising and take responsibility for delivering ambitious visions and solutions for local communities.

Councils are making the most of legislative changes to pull local partners together to give residents what they want. They are taking the lead in tackling climate change and ensuring this country has the skills, services and homes which the private market has failed to deliver.

Legislative changes since 1997 have been designed to develop the community leadership role of local councils. These change include including the duty of best value, the power of well-being, directly-elected mayors and new political structures, and the new place-shaping role envisaged in the 2006 white paper Stronger Prosperous Communities and translated into statute by the Local Government and Involvement in Health Act. However, these have not yet had the desired impact of restoring the former glories of our municipal past.

Nevertheless, local area agreements are enabling councils to bring partners together with pooled budgets to tackle problems that matter to local people. Multi-area agreements apply the principle to a wider area, allowing local authorities – along the Flyde Coast, for example – to work collectively to boost the sub-regional economy, transport system and housing provision.

The municipal place-shaping role enshrined in recent guidance is designed to encourage local authorities to develop specific visions for local communities. The duty to involve local people in decision-making in their area will, it is to be hoped, reinforce the connection between good governance and service delivery.

The nationalisation and privatisation of the local state has created a vacuum that yet to be adequately addressed. But the sense of powerlessness that many people feel in the face of private sector monopolies and quangos which control energy, the environment and transport infrastructure is now being challenged by local councils. They are rediscovering the drive and purpose which were the hallmark of the formative years of local government in this country.

A striking example of this is Essex County Council and the 50 or so other local authorities whose response to the planned closure of thousands of sub-post offices by Royal Mail in the name of efficiency has been to offer to take over the running of local post offices on behalf of their communities.

An example of a council working holistically to address the threat of climate change is Southampton City Council, one of the most eco-friendly authorities in the country. The council’s Energising Southampton strategy means local energy companies provide district heat and power through sustainable sources to various clients including BBC television studios, an ASDA supermarket, a shopping centre and domestic properties. They are also keeping energy costs down in the face of rising prices and dealing with fuel poverty in the process.

Many councils are beginning to redefine their purpose, not just as agents of central government, but also as active champions of their communities. In another example of local initiatives to promote access to higher education and tackle social exclusion, the London Borough of Newham is offering residents entering higher education the opportunity for specialised help and advice with making applications for student finance. For the past four years, the number of Newham residents applying for higher education has increased year on year by an average of 300 applicants – up from 2,234 in 2003 to 3,454 in 2007.

Glasgow City Council is also responding to skills gaps that the construction industry has been unable to fill. Every school leaver in Glasgow who applies for a modern apprenticeship next year will be offered one as part of a £30 million plan to prepare for the city’s 2014 Commonwealth Games. A total of 2,000 construction apprenticeships will be offered, most with construction company City Building, which is owned by Glasgow City Council. Successful applicants will be able to learn electrical, plumbing, roofing, joinery and bricklaying skills. Those requiring assistance in literacy, numeracy and social skills will be offered the help they need to progress.

Broxtowe Borough Council, Darlington, Mid and East Lothian councils and the London Borough of Islington are among the few local authorities which are actually managing to build council houses, despite the lack of national financial backing and the unfavourable political climate in which to meet housing needs.

There can be no future for local government as merely the administrative arm of the central state, enforcing national laws and collecting revenues to part fund government initiatives. While local government in Britain has no separate constitutional identity from the national Parliament at Westminster and is to a very large extent a legislative creature of central government, it is vital to the democratic health of the nation and the creation of active and vibrant local communities.

Although Westminster has been keen to articulate a vision of localism built on city regions, community leadership, place-shaping and neighbourhood governance, this will not come about through top-down imposition. It can only happen through the civic leadership of local authorities responding to the many challenges facing our communities. From improving educational outcomes, developing and improving the skills of the local workforce and building affordable homes, to tackling climate change and the impact of global economic forces on local economies, the challenges and the solutions are all local.

There is increasing evidence that local government is beginning to wake up to its responsibilities in health, housing, energy and the environment. Despite years of denigration and being denuded of any real power, we may be beginning to realise a renaissance in municipal enterprise which, if it is allowed to flourish and is given the support it deserves from national government, might just provide the architecture to support the rhetoric of the new localism.

Mark Bramah is the assistant chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence

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