Paul Wheeler 25 November 2009

Where’s the local leadership?

Where’s the local leadership? image

The current local political status quo is ill-suited to providing the necessary cross-sector leadership with real powers to impose financial and performance discipline in the era of Total Place, says Paul Wheeler

With the pre-Budget report looming, expect more focus on how the Total Place project can achieve the seemingly-impossible task of providing better and more co-ordinated services at less cost. As always, it pays to read the small print which makes clear that this modern day miracle is only possible with ‘strong local leadership’.
The implication is that this strong local leadership will be provided by local council leaders. Yet, if this is true – and I suspect there are many in the wider public sector who would contest this vigorously – then we do need to think how such a strong leadership role will work in
A recent visit to Boston in the US has provided me with some food for thought. It helped that I was there during a mayoral election campaign, but what was evident was that local voters had very clear views on the standards of policing, public health and education, among other issues.
What was equally clear was the local population also knew who was in charge. In America – as in most of Europe – power comes with responsibility at a local level, so the mayor has clear powers to appoint the commissioners of police, fire, public health and schools. Those appointed had to have high professional standards, but also knew their priorities and budgets were set by the mayor.
Now, I can understand that there is a healthy scepticism about elected mayors in England, but for those who oppose them, the real question is, where do the powers and mandate come from for ‘strong local leadership’?
In a era of public expenditure cuts, working relationships on local strategic partnerships (LSPs) will be tested to destruction. The emerging findings from the Total Place project indicate the huge potential for cross-sector partnerships, but there is a limit to how much of this potential will be realised by consensus.
The blunt reality is that we need a local decision-maker with the ability to agree senior managerial appointments and approve budgets across the locality.
That is the prize which is on offer to the council leaders of our major councils.
If we don’t want an elected mayor, we had better come up with our own alternatives, since the current political status quo cannot provide the mandate to reform the local state and impose the necessary performance and financial discipline on local partners – where the vast bulk of local public expenditure is incurred.
While some of the fears about elected mayors have been about the creation of celebrity politics, the opposite is true in Boston and most American and European cities – with the obvious exception of the city state of New York. In Boston, it is the old-style politician who walks the city every day who has been re-elected for a fifth term.
Perhaps to provide some reassurance, we also have to look at the existing ‘checks and balances’ on our political governance. While there have, rightly, been concerns about the operation of the Standards Board at national level – with distinct hostility from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – at a local level, the standards committee has been much better received.
Why not expand their remit to all local governance with a higher profile, such as the investigating magistrates in Italy or the district attorney in the US. 
Similarly, we could be much more imaginative in the role of councillors. Boston has a number of city-wide councillors who were elected by the entire city. They have a much wider profile, and can provide challenges to the mayor. This also encourages groups who might not be elected in individual wards to appeal to a wider, city electorate – as with Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
Political parties should be encouraged to put forward their best and brightest to be councillors, rather than seeing the role as some kind of long-service award.
The sad reality is that in all the conversations about reforming our political systems, local politics barely registers a comment. Total Place has caught the imagination of a wider audience in the media and public sector. In its next phase it has to provoke a much wider debate on the role of local political leadership, and how to create vibrant and strong local democracy.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum
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