Just as we have all had to think differently about our lives, councils across the UK have had to find new ways to continue serving their residents, while also leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And of course, England remains one of the most centralised countries in the World. As we now emerge from these testing times, we need a national debate about local government, a debate that we at the Local Government Association will be championing over the next year.
And there is no better time for this debate to be had. Councils and local communities up and down the country have shown themselves to be more than able to deal with this recent crisis, more agile than Whitehall in dealing with the pandemic. They have provided hundreds of thousands of food parcels for vulnerable residents. Rough sleeping has been virtually eliminated thanks to councils’ efforts. And they have provided local businesses with support to see them through these unprecedented times.
All this is reflected in the most recent polling the LGA has done, looking at resident satisfaction. The overall satisfaction level with local councils – 75 per cent – is the highest we have ever recorded in these polls. This includes significant increases in residents being satisfied with their local area (87 per cent positive), trusting their local authority (71 per cent), and councils demonstrating value for money (57 per cent), acting on their concerns (68 per cent) and keeping residents informed (69 per cent).
Meanwhile, the Government is set to release a devolution white paper later this year, seeking input into proposals on the future shape of local government. So, with recent experience, public sentiment and even Whitehall ready to look again at this, we have the opportunity to make our vision of what would be possible if councils were sustainably funded, a reality.
At our Annual Conference, held virtually over the past two weeks, we launched a new paper outlining what we think this might look like. In it, we say that the work of councils over the past 4 months has again busted the myth that “Whitehall knows best” and that one size fits all solutions are not the way forward. Councils, with the right powers and flexibilities, can lead the partnership with national government to renew communities across the country.
Councils can bring all parts of the public sector together to collaborate in the delivery of the public services our residents rely on. Councils can enable and empower local communities to support themselves, and have the democratic legitimacy to shape and lead local endeavours. This will put those who know their areas best in the driving seat as we seek to level out inequalities and shape the future of our country.
Councils and councillors all over the country have shown real leadership during this crisis and what can be achieved when the responses are rooted in the local community. Despite funding pressures, councils have created new services, pulled partners together and instinctively protected the most vulnerable. These same leaders must now play a part in the rebuilding of our communities through access to the right tools and resources. The LGA will be working to amplify these voices and messages in the coming months, as we seek to Rethink Local.
Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association