When your career, like mine, has spanned four decades it is inevitable you will encounter plenty of challenges along the way, but what local government is experiencing right now is testing even the most experienced among us.
My role and responsibilities have changed considerably since I started my career in marketing, sport and leisure development in the early 1990s. But, having worked at district, shared services partnerships, and unitary councils, I can confidently say the operating environment for all of us in the sector is more complex and more challenging than it has ever been.
Reflecting on the past triggers thoughts of the future, and how we might collectively overcome challenges, both immediate and impending. If there is one lesson I have learned during my career it is to never underestimate the power of people – and in local government we have some amazing people. But with financial and physical resources under severe strain for the foreseeable future, successfully navigating what lies ahead will require us to come together and draw on each other’s skills, ideas, and innovations more often than we have done in the past.
That is why events like the Solace Summit are so important. It is a chance for many of us to step away from our desks, lift our heads, share stories, develop new networks and swap solutions. So, if you have not already booked to attend the Summit taking place in Birmingham on 17-19 October, I urge you to do so now.
When I became Solace president I wanted to stick with the key policy priorities that my predecessor Joanne Roney and the Solace policy board had agreed two years before, specifically workforce, prevention and finance as addressing each of these has the potential to transform not only our councils, but the communities we serve.
Tackling the workforce crisis is not just about plugging the gaps we already have, although we must. Just as important is bringing young people into local government and creating the next generation of local government leaders. That is why I am delighted Solace has once again put on its pre-Summit Trailblazer day, aimed at nurturing emerging talent.
These annual events are just the start of what Solace does in this space, however. We run a range of programmes for aspiring, current, and new chief executives, plus our AMPlify programme. This supports the development of diverse talent within local government leadership, because diversity is intrinsic to both democracy and leadership – two principles of Solace’s Code of Ethics and at the heart of what local government does.
We also need a greater emphasis on prevention and early intervention across the public sector. For far too long this country has lurched from crisis to crisis and not done nearly enough to tackle the root causes of issues. We need to get ahead of the game and Solace will continue to bang that drum in our conversations with ministers and officials.
It is pleasing to see this point begin to filter through with national Government, but it is also abundantly clear we still have a big job to do to move beyond warm words to see concrete action.
The same is true in relation to creating a local government finance system that is truly sustainable and fit for the future. While there is widespread and cross-party agreement on the need for reform, it would be naïve to think there will be appetite anytime soon for a fundamental reimagination of how the system is designed. Nor is there likely to be the capacity to provide councils with significant additional funding. However, there is good reason to think that the next Government – whatever its political colour – might be more open to thinking creatively about how we amend the current system so it works better. We should grasp the opportunity between now and the next General Election to collectively come up with ideas as to what those enhancements might look like.
Summit is also an opportunity to discuss, debate, and agree lines on the big issues affecting the people and places we serve, as well as us as individuals.
The abuse, intimidation, and harassment of officers – and elected members – remains a major issue that ministers must address, especially if they want councils to help drive positive changes across the country.
Whoever wins power, a key part of improving the health of UK plc will be fostering more robust economic growth across the country, something we think requires a strengthened role for local government, in particular through statutory powers over economic development backed by appropriate funding.
Making the system work far better is something we will all need to get used to in the years to come. This will hopefully incorporate public sector reform, including a meaningful shift in power from the centre down to us at the local level. Of course, with greater devolution will rightly come greater accountability, on which I note that the advent of the Office for Local Government presents both challenges and opportunities, just as we have witnessed with the health integration agenda.
There has never been a more challenging time to work in local government. But there has equally never been a more exciting time either. If we continue to come together and collaborate, we can not only continue to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, but we can continue to effect real positive change in our communities right across the country too.
Matt Prosser is president of Solace and chief executive of Dorset Council
The Solace Summit will take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole on 17-19 October 2023.
For more information and to book your tickets, visit the Solace Summit website: www.solace-summit.com/