Grassroots solutions key to recovery

31 October 2013

Column originally published in the Local Government Chronicle on 17 October 2013.

The party conferences were a mixed bag of announcements already trailed and the slow grinding of the pre-election gears.

And the chancellor’s key announcement in Manchester? Not a grand coalition with Ukip, but at least seven more years of austerity to fund a projected budgetary surplus over the course of the next Parliament.

What might be the consequences of this for public policy, for the skills system and local growth, and for councils?

The great unknown was the source of funding for maintaining the surplus. Rather like the more headline-grabbing fuel duty freeze, the small print caveat of ‘if we can find savings to fund it’ looms large. All the larger with the ‘projected’ budgetary surplus.

Local authority budgets, combined with the prior negotiating stance of the Department for Communities & Local Government in spending reviews past, does not bode well. Council coffers will remain high on the list of places to look for further savings.

Where councils and the strong local partnerships across the learning and skills system come in, will be in straddling the politically contested territory that is now the “living standards” debate. All parties are vying for this territory, but local partnerships know it best – its reality on the ground, its experience as residents, dealing with its consequences as award councillors.

This is the territory where local government, irrespective of party control, and local enterprise partnerships can really shine – demonstrating their tremendous grassroots reach, and ability to tailor local solutions to living standard challenges across the UK.

I was pleased that LEPs’ skills plans, the ‘real people’ ingredient in growth strategies, and the opportunity for getting these right for UK recovery and poverty reduction was a massive feature of debates at all the party conferences. But I worry that the voice of localism and local solutions to the UK’s recovery was at times muted.

Important though LEPs are, they lack the democratic accountability of councils, and the deep knowledge councillors provide of the best solutions for their places.

It has become almost contrived to call for yet another renaissance of localism. But localism writ large will provide many of the best solutions the recovery needs.

LEPs need it, councils provide it, communities demand it. We cannot have a further round of austerity with local government seen as the easy cash cow for savings.

For improvement on the grandest possible scale, let’s keep that argument running and keep the localism flag flying from the rooftops.