Cllr Andrew Burns: Local authorities need more control of our own destiny

Andrew_Burns_9_200x200By Cllr Andrew Burns
Leader of City of Edinburgh Council and Chair of the CCIN

Councils across the country are embracing the opportunities presented by cooperative models of service delivery. But these approaches also need local government to be given meaningful powers over economic policy and funding.

 The assertion that local government had been unnecessarily stripped of powers, and that its funding mechanisms are broken, would likely still have been slightly controversial in some quarters if stated several years ago. But now, here in early 2015, I doubt if anyone seriously contests the fact that there’s a significant structural problem with how councils across the United Kingdom are empowered and financed.

As a council leader, a ward councillor, and a member of my local community, I understand the scale of the challenges that we are all facing locally. Many communities are disengaged from local democracy; councils can seem like distant bureaucracies; and, as organisations, we struggle to manage significant funding reductions just as local people are putting more and more demand on local services.

If councils are going to survive in this context, and if communities are going to thrive, then we all need to start doing things differently. We need to work together, in genuine and equal partnership with local people, to make the most of the strengths that lie in our communities. Most importantly, we must drive real innovation, with local people at its core, if we are to face the challenges ahead of us.

This is exactly why the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network exists. And, as the current chair of the network, I firmly believe that the co-operative principles of empowerment, equal partnership, and collective action offer a positive route not simply to survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

Three key points are clear. Firstly, for local devolution to be successful, there has to be a fundamentally new relationship between councils and citizens. Secondly, as part of this, there needs to be a different form of local leadership, where elected members and others are willing to ‘let go’ and become less risk averse. And thirdly, we need to create appropriate platforms for devolution that align with the key needs, relationships and resources of local areas.

But even if all of these actions are undertaken, and I believe many local councils the length and breadth of the UK have indeed embraced this agenda, the outcomes from this innovative new approach to local service delivery will be severely muted if local government is not re-empowered with meaningful economic policy and funding levers.

If we’re serious about providing the basis for a radically new approach to local service delivery, which subsequently leads to the creation of thriving local economies, then we must surely give our local councils the tools in the toolbox to make this happen.

That’s why I’m so excited about the launch today of the findings of a policy commission on community resilience, jobs and enterprise, undertaken by the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network.

In the context of an ailing centralised system (best exemplified by the Work Programme), the commission has examined cooperative approaches to tackling labour market exclusion and building fairer and more enterprising local economies. The findings complement the current debate on devolution to city regions.

The commission report calls for a series of cooperative ‘deals’ with citizens, business and central government to build an economy and a system of employment, skills and enterprise that is underpinned by social partnership, gives localities real power and unlocks the potential and creativity of citizens.

It’s a real prospectus for giving local councils the powers they need, which would actually ensure that the welcome new approaches to local service delivery subsequently lead to the creation of thriving local economies.

In a nutshell, local councils would be given the economic-policy levers to make a real local difference.

And, in recent weeks and months, we’ve also seen the publication of two equally important studies; both of which have charted a path for the further devolution of financial freedoms to local councils.

In Scotland, the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy has laid out radical new proposals to re-empower Scottish democracy; and in England, the  has outlined a programme for reform that would lay the foundations for a local government funding system which would be stable for the long term, stimulate economic growth and enable local people to invest in their own local priorities.

In a nutshell, these two sets of proposals would ensure local councils were given the funding levers to make a real local difference.

If the next UK government, of whatever colour, had the political will to implement this double-devolution of economic policy powers and funding powers straight to local councils, I am certain we would see a complete transformation of local democracy and local economies for the better.

It really is time to give town halls more control of their own destiny, and I believe the blueprints to deliver that transformation are all in existence.

What are we waiting for?

Cllr Andrew Burns is Leader of City of Edinburgh Council and Chair of the CCIN. You can find him on Twitter at @AndrewDBurns

This article was originally published in Public Finance