Yesterday saw the launch of our new report on Oldham Council’s co-operative model of local government. What struck us immediately during the roundtable discussions was that despite differences in language and emphasis, people across the political divide share a lot in common. After a month of national party conferences where the central messages were about collective aspiration, social solidarity and the need to become ‘one nation’, it is fitting that those at the frontline of local politics and community action were keen to emphasise a sense of shared direction.
In many ways this is unsurprising. Communities, civil society and local authorities across the UK face many of the same pressures. Rising demand, rapid demographic change, public sector cuts and a sustained period of economic recession have radically changed the context of local government. Councils have had no choice but to try to invent new ways to deliver better outcomes with less money, manage service demand and re-examine the role of public services. Both what we have learned from Oldham and what was discussed at the launch by different stakeholders suggests community leadership should be at the core of a better model of local government that is able to respond to these pressures. Effective community leadership rejects both a centralised, managerial model of executive government and a localism agenda that hands power directly down to communities and liberalises delivery, but bypasses the state and political leaders in the process.
The challenge is to harness the power and influence of the council and councillors in a new way. This is less about council process and performance, and more about mobilising and catalysing communities through a more reciprocal relationship between the state and citizens. Jon Cruddas, who is heading Labour’s Policy Review, argued the report was right in highlighting the need for a new social contract between citizens and the state. This new type of community leadership is a central strand of Oldham Council’s co-operative model. The council is working on instituting a radical shift away from a model of centralised control and managerialism to a greater enabling role that empowers community leaders and citizens to take greater responsibility for their neighbourhoods. This in turn is indivisible from the imperatives of reducing dependency and managing demand, redesigning services and leveraging the assets of a local area to achieve better social and economic outcomes in tough times. Oldham Council Leader Jim McMahon spoke honestly and eloquently about how local politicians, including from his own party, had in the past created a dependency culture. Back then, significant levels of grant masked the entrenched social and economic problems that existed in the borough. But a new approach under his leadership and the reality of austerity has shown only a new form of engaged leadership can really meet the challenges facing many of the UK’s towns and cities.
Councillors are crucial to making this happen. Oldham has recognised this by providing ward councillors with new forms of support and power through devolution, and a mandatory training programme that is helping to ensure that councillors have the right skills to become more effective community leaders. Christina Dykes compared their role to a spider’s – knitting everything together by identifying and leveraging available resources and opportunities to give communities a stronger stake in local politics. In many ways councillors have been the missing ingredient in the current government’s localism agenda. What Oldham’s experience demonstrates and what our conversations suggest is that a ‘Big Society’ without strong local leadership is unlikely to work. How councils leverage community leadership and to what degree they help councillors play a more constructive role in their communities is just as important as – and closely connected to – questions about new delivery models, a renewed focus on productivity and efficiencies, and the need to get ‘more with less’. In short, community leadership should be at the core of a new localism.