The changing face of Local Government

Nina Dawes, the newly appointed Chief Executive of the District Council, was the Society's guest speaker at its January meeting. She chose the challenging and controversial subject of the changes proposed by central government to the operational structure of local authorities and the mechanisms of delivery for services. Not an exciting topic you would say but in the event, a large attendance of members engaged in a stimulating debate until well beyond 9 o'clock in the evening.

Nina started by explaining that there are many changes in the pipeline for local government. Some had already seen the light of day in White Papers, Green Papers and changes to legislation. One of the most significant changes was that local authorities now had a new statutory duty to ensure the economic, social and environmental well-being of the communities which they served. They were to do this as community leaders, deliverer of services and enabler of services delivered by others. They were expected, through community leadership, to bring all the 'players' (fashionably now called stakeholders) together to prepare a Community Strategy. These strategies, aimed at improving the well-being of all those involved in the life of the local authority area, were aimed at enhancing the quality of life of all the community. Woven into the objectives was the need to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, that elusive concept which seeks to ensure that we leave this planet in a fit state for our successors. So how do we prepare a Community Strategy?

Well the journey is just as important as the destination. The process of debate with representatives of the community is important. It seeks to ensure that there is a shared commitment - a shared vision - for the area. A commitment which involves not only the local community but all those organisations which in one way or another deliver services to the community, organisations such as the Learning and Skills Council, the Regional Development Agency and the Health Authority.

There is no prescribed format for a Community Strategy but a strong desire from the Government that it should not be vague and aspirational but be precise in identifying the short-term and medium-term objectives for the area. It will be used as a document for bidding for other financial resources to be applied in the area.

The next stages for us here in Lichfield will involve the Council convening a forum of representatives of all sectors of the community, to consider how to develop the Community Strategy. The Civic Society will have a role to play in that forum and we need to carefully consider what views we wish to express about the area's aspirations over the next 10-15 years. The first meeting of the forum is scheduled for March.

Nina also explained to us about the changes, which had taken place in the structure of the District Council as a consequence of Government legislation. The old committee system is no more and the Council is run on a day-to-day basis by a Cabinet of elected Members who apply policy approved by the District Council. The Cabinet itself is subject to monitoring by Overview and Scrutiny Committees, which have the right to call in the decisions of Cabinet for scrutiny and comment. An independent, free-standing Planning Committee deals with planning applications. Nina made particular point in stressing that the existing customer and partner panels dealing with disability, sports and other issues still remained and formed part of the overall process.

The ensuing debate, which occupied half of the evening, led to a stimulating interchange between Nina and members of the Society. Although there was a qualified welcome to the introduction of the 'modernising agenda' whereby the Council had been restructured with a view to promoting greater transparency in community engagement, many members of the Society remained concerned over the practicability of the preparation of a Community Strategy. How did one achieve consensus about a vision for Lichfield over so many diverse groups with different aims and objectives? How did one engage not only existing community groups but also those outside of the ring? Building on known groups was relatively straightforward but what about those members of society who were outside any formal mechanisms?

Experience shows that public engagement is extremely difficult to achieve unless the interests of members of the public are directly affected by a particular issue. Concerns were expressed over the 'initiative overload'. More and more consultation was required, more and more Government directives were emerging, developing new initiatives. Did the local agencies have the capacity to take on board so many initiatives and deliver meaningful results? And what about resourcing? There is a danger that the preparation of a Community Strategy will heighten aspirations of a wide range of community groups. Not all those aspirations can be met within resource constraints - unless council taxes soar.

How will conflicting demands be reconciled?

Despite the extensive range of concerned comments, Nina remained the optimist. This is a system, which the Government will require local authorities to implement. We need to work proactively to make it happen - to get the best out of it for Lichfield residents - for there is no other option available to us. Working against the new proposals could be counter- productive. Not the least because Community Strategies are intended by the Government to become the basis for resource bidding. Local authorities who have not gone through this process may well find that the resources available to them from central Government are more limited.

In expressing thanks to the speaker, your President Mary Lister suggested Nina may like to return in a year's time when we could look back on what will be a turbulent year in local government to assess the progress that has been made.

Roger Hockney
January 2002