Local Leadership in a Perfect Storm

Author: Alex Thomson, in Public Finance   |  

Alex Thomson reflects on Lord Howard’s lecture: Local Opportunity – National Benefit.

I try to avoid spending too much time on the public sector lecture circuit. Enjoyable as it is to catch up with old friends and colleagues, it’s far too easy to get distracted by the plethora of speeches of varying quality on offer. But every now and again, you come across a good one.

This was the case with the barnstorming lecture that Lord (Michael) Howard gave recently in honour of the late LGA chairman Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. It was on the national need for local leadership.

To paraphrase, Howard said that a perfect storm had formed for local government: an economy needing a significant boost; reduced funding for many public services, accelerating the need for change; and new reforms from government which cry out for local leadership if they are to be delivered.

As he put it, ‘The national economic situation undoubtedly provides a challenging backdrop. But it also presents an opportunity for local government. Fortune, I hope, will favour the brave.’

Howard identified economic leadership as an area where local government can make a real difference. Taking the lead on inward investment and showing that you’re open for business (‘doing a Boris’), planning and coordinating infrastructure to boost the local economy, joining up business support and establishing a more entrepreneurial culture were all suggested as ways in which local government could take the lead.

It isn’t just economic leadership where councils can make a difference; civic leadership is a vital area too. Howard stressed that this is not just about ‘a press release here and a newspaper story there’, but representation on issues such as rail services, where a council can articulate the view of residents in a much more powerful way than they can do alone.

He argued that government has fundamentally changed – council leaders should no longer wait for ministerial consent to take action. Local authorities have the power to act under the general power of competence and should stop looking to Whitehall to solve problems. Some councils do this already; all of them should.

All these factors open the door to a new brand of local leadership – ‘one that looks afresh at the opportunities out there and applies them to grow local economies and strengthen local communities,’ said Howard.

Local leaders should take advantage of the need to cut and re-shape services – and use the opportunity to encourage the next generation of local leaders.

‘The wave of the perfect storm has formed,’ he argued. ‘It is up to you to ride it. Your local opportunity can indeed bring significant national benefit and I am sure you will rise to the challenge.’

As a former minister for local government (among many other roles) Howard knows all about the challenges facing local council leaders.

But in a speech that called on the sector to do more, and take the opportunity to drive new economic growth and innovation, it is interesting that he put his faith in local government to deliver.