A crucial role for districts

By Martin Ellender | 17 November 2020

As the momentum dropped out of the reorganisation agenda for all but a few areas, communities secretary Robert Jenrick in recent ministerial statements has recognised ‘different ways that councils can streamline and make savings’ through ‘joint working’.

That phrase is quite revealing – implying that the purpose of collaboration, structural or otherwise, is to make local government smaller and more efficient. I think the real purpose of collaboration is at the heart of the purpose of local government itself, which is to steer communities and economies towards prosperity and opportunity whilst providing support where it is needed the most. The size and cost of services, while important from a managerial perspective, are not what ultimately matters.

But what are these ‘different ways’? Working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) in 2018, we published an extensive toolkit for locally-led collaboration and transformation. We could not have predicted intervening events, but I believe that the principles and case studies in the document are just as relevant today.

DCN is just about to publish its brief update to this report, in which we highlight how district councils, working with neighbours and partners of all stripes, continue to act as pragmatic collaborators in providing local solutions to the most pressing global challenges.

The many examples in this report highlight how district councils continue to work across boundaries, collaborating over areas that make sense of local economies and how people live their lives, making innovative use of their key statutory, regulatory, licensing and benefits levers to protect and support their communities.

For example, districts have been integral to the community response to lockdown; collaborating closely with local partners to protect and inform residents while also maintaining access to mental health lifelines such as open spaces, leisure and cultural services. This crucial role will continue as we navigate a challenging winter, with districts continuing to play a key role in partnership with Government to ensure that the most vulnerable households get the financial support they need. They also continue to support local businesses and high streets, drawing on close connections, local knowledge, and their partnerships within the wider system.

The other global crisis that has landed firmly on the local agenda is climate change. Around two-thirds of English districts have declared a climate emergency and have set out their plans for local action in collaboration with local public and private sector partners. As well as decarbonising their own operations and supporting partners to do the same, as the planning authorities for the areas they serve districts have a unique opportunity to ensure that development is sustainable and supported by appropriate levels of ‘green and blue’ infrastructure.

There is also a fundamental role for districts in building general-purpose resilience within their local systems. As well as deepening relationships with neighbouring authorities, this has also meant closer working with the third sector.

Relationships with the voluntary and community sector, which were already strong across the country, have been catalysed by the response to COVID-19 and districts are continuing to work to reinforce the capacity and infrastructure for community power.

From an economic perspective, districts are at the heart of many dynamic local growth partnerships that are aiming for significant growth and investment while creating a platform for new relationships with central Government, all without the need for the disruption and distraction of structural change.

Work in areas such as Hertfordshire, North and South Essex, Central Lincolnshire and the West Midlands show what districts can achieve with their partners when they work together around a shared economic geography.

Where big Government and centralised control have struggled under exceptionally challenging circumstances, district councils have continued to be the first line of local accountability, support and protection for the communities and businesses they serve.

Districts, with their local and national partners must reflect deeply on what has worked well during this incredibly challenging period and protect the strengths in the system that have been highlighted in 2020.

There is no sign that things will get easier for public services in the short-term. Whatever the future brings and whatever the next crisis may be, collaboration, resilience, agility and accountability at the most local level will continue to be crucial.

Martin Ellender is director, public sector advisory practice at Grant Thornton UK LLP

@MartinEllender

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