Solace at 50

As Solace hits its 50th anniversary – alongside the anniversary of the 1974 local government reorganisation – Heather Jameson looks at the highlights of an essay collection launched to mark the occasion.

‘When the President of Solace, Sir John Boynton, chief executive of Cheshire County Council, was asked why the Society was to hold its annual dinner at the Savoy at a time of financial stringency he responded: "Because we can't afford Claridges."'

While the Society of Local Authority Chief Executive (Solace) may not be holding this year's dinner at either Claridges or the Savoy, the 50th Anniversary dinner tonight (21 March) in Whitehall's Banqueting House is a momentous occasion.

Modern day hearts may not bleed for the council chief executives of years gone by, slumming it at the Savoy, however former Westminster City Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council chief executive Sir Rodney Brooke describes a bygone era of local government as part of his contribution to an essay collection launched to celebrate the 50th birthday of the chief executives' body.

Where are many comparisons between now and the 1970s – the uncertainty, soaring inflation and political instability – there have been seismic shifts both in society and in local government. And 1974 – when Solace was born – was perhaps one of the pivotal moments for the sector.

Prior to the 1974 local government reorganisation, Sir Rodney paints a picture of respect, status and financial security in the sector that a modern council chief executive could only dream of.

He writes: ‘Before 1974 there was a belief that local problems were soluble, that resources would be found to address them, and that local government would be the medium by which they would be resolved. That faith dwindled after reorganisation.'

There was a time when local government held responsibility for utilities, the police, hospitals, and further education. ‘When Sir Charles McGrath, one of my predecessors in the West Riding County Hall, went to Whitehall,' Sir Rodney writes, ‘the London train was held at Wakefield station until his arrival.

‘When in London he would send his card to the Permanent Secretary of the Local Government Ministry, announcing that Sir Charles was in residence at Claridges and would be pleased to receive the Permanent Secretary if he cared to call.'

But 1974 saw more than just the establishment of Solace. It saw huge local government reorganisation and the removal of many of the previous responsibilities held by the sector – and it was just the start.

Former Lewisham LBC and Kensington and Chelsea RLBC chief executive Barry Quirk takes up the narrative, noting the large-scale reorganisation brought a new cadre of chiefs to the fore – and a change in tone from central government. He writes: ‘The election of a Conservative government in 1979 brought plans to curb public spending, including local government spending. In 1984, this government introduced a process of "capping" local rate rises.

‘Some councils resisted this new approach by trying to raise local taxes (the "rates") or by proposing unbalanced and deficit budgets, so as to maintain spending levels. However, this clash of legitimacy between central and local government could only result in one winner: the centre.'

While Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was no great fan of local government, there was a slight reprieve under John Major before a return to another sector-sceptic Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman gives a potted history of finance – from the Poplar rates rebellion to where the future should go – but Quirk notes: ‘The publication of 50 ways to save: sensible savings in local government by the (then) MHCLG on 19 December 2012 marked a low point in central-local government relations.'

Sir Michael Lyons agrees that ‘public finances [are] set to remain tight for the foreseeable future' which is likely to put further strain on central local relations.

He adds: ‘It is the need for a new constitutional settlement between central and local government which was at the heart of my work on the role and funding of local government completed in 2014.

‘Put simply we need a fundamental reset of the local government finance system so that it better reflects the role local government plays.

As Sir Michael writes: ‘Who knows what the next 50 years will bring? But one thing this report tells us is that the role of councils and their chief executives will not remain static.'

Diversity: ‘Breaking the glass ceiling'

Former Hackney LBC and Sheffield City Council chief executive Pamela Gordon broke glass ceilings during the mid-1980s, but when she attended an Association of London Chief Executives' meeting, she says: ‘I admit I found the appearance of those identikit, grey-suited men intimidating and I did certainly think of it as a cosy "old boys club."'

Nevertheless, she persevered and went on to become president of Solace, adding: ‘It seemed important to concentrate on substantive issues which needed to be addressed, rather than being over-sensitive about how I was perceived.'

She says of her time: ‘I'm proud to have chipped the glass ceiling for Solace and been part of a wider development which opened up the cracks through which younger women might aspire to scramble, as of right.'

Former Harrogate BC chief executive Wallace Sampson notes a Green Park Survey of 2018 which found ‘there were 16 persons of colour in chief executive roles in local government'. While here may have been some improvements, he suggests the changes were ‘not seismic'.

His advice for improving diversity is simple. The sector needs to:

  • showcase successful people of colour
  • have a targeted approach to spotting and nurturing emerging talent from the BAME community
  • create short-term placement opportunities created for aspiring leaders
  • work with decision makers, particularly councillors, to put more emphasis on diversity in recruitment and training.

What next for finance?

In his essay for Solace's 50th anniversary, Rob Whiteman looks at the history of local government finances – the freedoms and funding – from the Poplar rates rebellion onward. In an excerpt below, he considers what the future holds

I f what local government does is to remain roughly the same, the pre-Covid consensus that more business rates should be localised with an aligned ‘fair funding' review of distribution to match spending to need is not now sustainable given structural economic changes affecting business rates.

If the function of local government were to alter, at one end say the nationalisation of adult care and children's care by Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Education respectively would mean more than enough council tax resources to pay for what's left; while devolving more to councils would further expose the need for additional resources beyond retained and redistributed business rates. Where we used to worry about the balance of funding, we now just worry about funding!

To daydream for a second. Could all parties in local government lobby to undo the limitations imposed over the last 40 years under successive governments to:

• Set business rates locally

• End referendum arrangements on the council tax

• Locally manage schools and FE colleges

• End the Right to Buy to build a million council homes?

And from learning to speak again, could it argue for what's needed next to confront the current set of challenges?

• Integrating health and care budgets under councils

• Assigning other taxes to local decision making

• Finding new sources of income from city/tourism taxes and charging

• Experimenting and innovating locally with new forms of schools and service provision

• Varying taxes and benefits locally to reduce poverty and incentivising growth

Well, that's all pretty much pie in the sky. We are more likely due more of the same where we articulate the problem but do not lobby for the fundamental and far-reaching reforms needed to locally problem solve the fundamental weaknesses of UK.

Looking at international systems, varying my income tax would be something best done on a regional basis by a mayor or governor who is directly elected, or by a devolved regional assembly or parliament; while locally I might pay a precept for a new park. Direct democratic legitimacy is key. That Ken Livingstone was only made leader by his political group after local elections undermined the case to retain the GLC. So, however many tiers of political governance exist to deliver double devolution, one day perhaps to regions and ultra-local parishes, I wish the sector would embrace the credibility that direct election brings to local democracy.

In conclusion, the reason local government and its system of finance remains unchanged is that the sector itself is not asking to change it. Yes, lobbying asks for more money to cover short-term pressures, but it does not challenge the form or function of the system. The sector is remote from its own reform.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lyons, a lesson is that setting up reviews to propose reform does not work. One day we need a government, probably via a second- or third-term manifesto, to boldly set out the reform to take place and then establish review/s to recommend how best to implement this. Because nationally the main parties are unlikely to reach a consensus on reform, in effect this precludes those same parties in local government articulating a changed state.

So, is our only hope that one day a royal commission is charged with designing devolved and self-funded sub-national government?

Rob Whiteman is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy


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