Do you remember, back in the olden days, when we used to go to conferences and events in person? When the whispers in the corridors and corners were every bit as crucial for understanding the macerations of local government as the high profile speakers? Each event was an opportunity to take a temperature check on the sector, capture the zeitgeist and understand the direction of travel.
The MJ Future Forum, held virtually for the first time last week, may have missed out on the corridors, corners, coffee spots and bars, but what it didn’t miss was the zeitgeist. Despite navigating the issues of finance, social care, the future and the coronavirus crisis, the sessions kept returning to a theme – central/local relations.
Relations are fractured and frayed as both central and local government deal with the coronavirus crisis. In an emergency, the shift to command and control leadership is a necessity. But central Government – and some bits of local government – have failed to move back out of emergency mode.
There has been a long list of policies passed down to a local level, all failing to engage or even inform the sector. From plans for COVID marshals to funds for people self-isolating. Even the strict rules put in place in the North East this week were announced on the news before Government engaged with local political leaders.
The question is, is the current Government’s tendency to centralise, to cut councils out of decisions, and to do to rather than do with a symptom of the COVID crisis, or is it just a ministerial cadre convinced that central Government knows best? Will the parent-child relationship stick, or is it time to let local government grow up?
Local government is far from perfect. Solace chair Gavin Jones admitted there are inconsistencies in service quality – and far too much in-fighting. And that is before you consider the huge headache of how to fund councils in future.
But local government is also the solution, pulling everything together at a local level. MHCLG director general Emran Mian vowed to get local government into the room across government departments. Let’s hope that happens before decisions are made.
If you missed the Future Forum, you can watch recordings of the sessions at https://futureforum.themj.co.uk/