Local government is fundamentally political and its future should be at the heart of contemporary political debate.
There is, I believe, a growing realisation that centrally driven "top down" policies and performance management regimes do not work in the long term and that what we now need a period of genuine localism. 'Big Society', of which we have heard rather less of late, claims to have localism at its heart (but not necessarily local government). Labour initiatives such as "co-operative councils" are very much localist. All the more disappointing that some Whitehall departments and their ministers do not seem to have grasped that this means 'less' central direction and 'more' local choice. This regressive, bunker thinking needs to be challenged and the case for local democracy needs to be made loudly and with conviction.
A localist agenda will require powerful and effective local political leadership. It is about making local choices which, in a period of severe financial cuts and rising demand, will never be easy. Some of these choices will not be what councillors would prefer to have to make but circumstances - especially reduced public expenditure may give them little alternative with "damage limitation" as well as much the maximisation of outcomes being the drivers - Still, local government has to be focused on articulating the voices of local citizens and representing and promoting the aspirations and needs of local communities. They have to be "place shapers" setting the vision for the locality and co-ordinating and influencing all public, private and third-sector stakeholders to maximise community well-being. They have to allocate public resources and making the necessary 'trade-offs' between competing demands - mediating and prioritising between competing demands and expectations within the community
However, contemporary councils and councillors cannot and should not expect to have all the local controls and powers to drive the above objectives. Just like central government, they too have to be ready to cede and devolve authority and resources - to communities, both neighbourhoods and communities of interest; to partner with other public bodies; and to work closely and effectively with the local voluntary and community sector and local businesses. In today's very different economic context, rather than implementing through diktat or as a benign 'big brother' the only way for local government to succeed is to act as a focal point and champion for local interests, and for the collective and individual interests of local citizens, local groups and local businesses. This requires our councillors and managers to have a totally different mindset, and to develop very different approaches and skills.
Today's council leader is only going to succeed in serving her/his place and local citizens if she/he is able to influence, persuade, negotiate and network with others. She/he this requires senior officers who can do the same.
All councillors have to focus on becoming community organisers, providing facilitative leadership to their communities - often working with local voluntary, community and faith groups and local employers (private and public). Local authorities have to recognise and strike the right local balance between representative and participatory democracy with the former holding the ultimate authority but exercised through partnership and not command. They need to have excellent relations with local schools, general practitioners and other health services, the police and all those whose services and activities impact on their communities.
The national political parties across all three conferences are talking about critical policies on economic growth, planning, housing, welfare and employment, health social care, education and much more. But these policies will only succeed when there is local determination and local action. Inevitably, there will be resistance to this from national politicians and in the case of the Government, from their civil service advisors. England remains a highly centralised country with Whitehall dominating over town hall. This has to change
The present Government has made some positive statements and there is much in the Localism Bill to support genuine localism. However, it remains to be seen if localism will win against centralism right across Whitehall and even in Communities and Local Government. The funding cuts imposed on local government were an auspicious launch pad for localism as are the missed opportunities in the health reforms and in the schools policy. For example, the Department of Education's "localism" is about powers for the department and some for schools but few for local government.
Local government has to be allowed to lead within and on behalf of local places. However, it is worrying that some many in local government still persist in waiting for Government permission, legislation or guidance rather than getting on doing what is necessary to enhance the well-being of their communities. My advice to any local authority leader is to do what you believe to be right until you are stopped - test the legal and financial boundaries to the limit - exert political power. You will and must be accountable primarily to the local electorate for your actions and the outcomes that are achieved.
Local government has to establish itself as local government and not local administration. Inevitably, this will mean different political choices in different places reflecting variations in need and aspiration as well as varying political ideologies. The ultimate test for these choices should be the ballot box provided that the council has acted within the law and with probity.
The political parties should value and celebrate local differences based on democratic local government. They should recognise the contribution to communities and to the parties themselves that local councillors make. Local government should be seen as part of the solution, and neither a problem or a hindrance to progress.
Ideally the parties should commit to a new constitutional settlement that sets out the autonomy, rights and responsibilities of local government. This settlement could enshrine the right and powers of local government in respect of other local and national public agencies and services in their areas. It should ideally also ensure greater local flexibility on local taxation but with the retention of allocation of funds and redistribution by national government.
It would be encouraging if the role, contribution and democratic importance of local government were to be heralded across the various platforms of this autumn's conferences. And recognised as essential to the economic, social and democratic future of the country and deserving of constitutional protection, projection and promotion.
Is it really too much to ask?