Accountable, efficient, innovative: the future of county councils

8 Nov 2016 01:16 PM

Sajid Javid talked to the County Councils Network about how local government can tackle the challenges of a changing world yesterday (07 November 2016).

Good evening everyone, it’s great to be here.

And it’s a pleasure to be speaking alongside some really great people.

Unfortunately I won’t be here to catch Ben Page’s talk tomorrow.

I know that in 2013 he did a presentation that featured, in huge bold text, the message “ERIC PICKLES WAS RIGHT”.

That’s about the best endorsement any DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) Secretary of State has ever had!

I’m hoping tomorrow he’ll have a slide that says “SAJID’S OK TOO”…

Ben’s team at Ipsos Mori have also found that local government is the most trusted part of government in England.

That’s certainly something you should be proud of.

Although of course it’s all relative.

Saying you’re the most popular kind of politician is a bit like saying you’re the most pleasant form of root canal surgery!

Given the choice, most people would rather not have any at all…

When I left the banking industry a few years ago I was the only new MP who came to politics from a less popular profession!

When I’m done with Westminster I might go for the hat-trick, become an estate agent.

Joking aside, I fully understand why the public put more faith in their local representatives.

It’s precisely because you’re local.

You’re right there.

You deliver the day-to-day services we all rely on.

And you tirelessly dedicate yourselves to the people you serve.

County councils also have a special place in English hearts and history.

Most of you, including our hosts here in Surrey, have been around since Victoria was on the throne.

I’m not talking about you, Dave!

In many cases the areas you serve reflect boundaries that have been there for centuries more.

And with that history comes a strong sense of local identity and pride.

Passions can run high, as I found in my home town of Rochdale recently.

I met a woman who said “You’re in charge of local government? Well I’m not happy about you making Rochdale part of Manchester!”

I assumed she was talking about the new devolved administration we’re creating there, so I tried to reassure her.

But no.

She was still angry about 1974!

I told her it really wasn’t my fault, I was 5 years old then.

Didn’t help.

“Typical politician, always making excuses …”

But for all that history, local government in England has always evolved to meet the needs of the day.

And that’s as true of the counties as it is of the cities.

After all, I’m not standing here tonight speaking at the Network of Wapentakes, Hundreds and Quarter Sessions!

Although I do like a nice Wapentake!

Times change, boundaries shift, responsibilities are taken on or given away.

I don’t believe in change for the sake of change.

But I’m sure you all agree that, where something can be done better, more effectively or more efficiently, you need a very good argument to stand in the way.

When change comes, even if you’re not entirely happy with it, the best course of action is to embrace it.

To make the most of it.

To make it work.

That’s what’s happening on the national stage with the Brexit negotiations.

MPs and ministers who voted remain are working to secure the best possible deal.

And I’m delighted to see so many examples of it at county council level too.

Just look at funding.

Over the past 6 years we in central government have asked a lot of you.

And you have certainly delivered.

The savings you have achieved have been nothing short of remarkable.

I know it’s not been easy.

But you’ve got on with it.

You’ve done the job we asked of you.

We asked you to put forward efficiency plans and sign up for 4-year funding settlements.

And nearly every council in England has done exactly that, including almost all of you here this evening.

It’s a great step forward that means more certainty for councils and better services for taxpayers.

You’ve also embraced change in the way you drive economic growth.

We asked you to work with the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and, again, you’ve done exactly that.

Time and again, when I speak to leading figures from LEPs, I hear praise for the proactive, can-do attitude of their local councils.

Maybe some of you still long for the days of the Regional Development Agencies?

I don’t know.

What matters is that you’ve embraced the new way of doing things.

You’ve made it work for the people you serve.

More investment, more jobs, more growth.

I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

With funding and with efficiency plans and with local growth councils have done so well because they’ve thought for themselves.

We in central government have set out a destination – better value for money, business-led development – and you have worked out your own way of getting there.

That for me is what localism is all about.

Local ideas.

Local implementation.

Delivering for local people.

Councils figuring out what’s right for their areas and getting on with it.

Not sitting around waiting to be told what to do by DCLG.

That’s why my door will always be open to councils with interesting, locally driven solutions to the challenges we face.

I’ve seen councils sharing services, pooling back-offices, rationalising their physical footprints.

Meanwhile, some councils are even prepared to think about changing the very structure of local government itself.

For example, Buckinghamshire has just delivered a detailed, innovative and original proposal to transform the county into a single unitary authority.

Obviously there’s a long way to go yet.

A lot of conversations to be had.

A lot of decisions to be made.

And I certainly don’t want to say anything today that could prejudice any of that.

But the plans put forward by Martin Tett and his team in Aylesbury are exactly the kind of proactive, locally driven thinking I want to see.

They were conceived locally.

They were developed locally.

And they have a firm focus on what’s best for local people.

Now, let me be absolutely, 100% clear.

I think unitary status can be a great model.

It certainly seems to be working well in Durham and Wiltshire.

And, as we’ve seen from the CCN reports being published last week, it has the potential to save a lot of money.

But I’m not for one moment saying it’s for everyone.

I’m not even saying it’s definitely right for Bucks.

And – don’t worry Gary Porter! – I’m certainly not saying that I want to make every council go unitary.

This is not compulsory.

It’s not going to be imposed.

If you choose to stick with a 2-tier model I’m not going send Lord Heseltine round to play with your kids’ pet dog!

However, if the people of your county want it, and if it’s going to make their services and their lives better, I’ll do my best to help you make it happen.

The same goes for any reform that can offer better local services, greater value for money and stronger local leadership.

And that final point, stronger local leadership, is particularly important.

Because the main lesson from the result of the EU referendum was that the people of Britain want to take back control.

We don’t want our country to be run by a remote, anonymous elite.

We don’t want our taxes to be spent by a faceless bureaucracy.

The opposite is true.

We want to know who’s in charge.

Who holds the purse strings.

Who’s making the decisions.

And we want to be able to chuck them out if they’re not doing a good job!

That’s why increasing accountability is at the heart of the devolution deals I’ve been working on.

Now, I get that directly elected mayors aren’t universally popular within local government.

And I know that’s especially true of the counties.

Even up here I can see the eyes starting to roll!

I’ve heard all the arguments.

Mayors are something that cities have.

The counties are too big, too rural, for one person to control.

Everything’s fine as it is, we don’t need change.

And, again, if you don’t want a directly elected leader, that’s fine.

I’m not going to demand that you have one.

But I’m not going to devolve significant new powers and more taxpayers’ money without a corresponding increase in local accountability.

It’s a real red line for me when it comes to negotiating devolution deals.

So a directly elected leader can get you the full Monty.

Everything I can offer under the terms of the 2016 Act.

Powers we’ve handed out so far include additional investment of tens of million of pounds for the next 30 years.

Multi-year transport budgets.

Strategic planning powers.

Adult education budget funding.

And greater local influence on employment support.

But people want to know who is in charge of spending that money.

Who is in charge of delivering those services.

So I’m not going to devolve power without clearer responsibility.

I often get told that directly elected leaders are only suitable for huge urban centres.

And yes, the office of mayor has transformed how London works.

Yes, next year will see mayoral elections in the urban areas centred on Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham.

But elected leaders are also being rolled out in places like Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the West of England.

In both cases, local leaders have stepped up to the mark and negotiated agreements that work for their communities.

And, in return, they’re being given a much greater level of control over their affairs.

Once again, it’s about councils putting themselves at the heart of change.

About actively seeking new opportunities.

About shaping your own destiny in a changing world instead of just hoping things will go back the way they were.

This kind of thinking is especially relevant around education.

For decades, it’s something local authorities had a monopoly on.

Today that’s all changed.

Academies and free schools are here to stay.

And councils need to think about the role they want to play now that education is no longer their sole dominion.

Again, my door is open to ideas.

Rather than complaining about extremely popular policies, tell me how you can work with them.

Pining for the past will not serve our children well.

The innovations of a forward-thinking council will.

Seize the opportunity.

Shape your own future.

None of this means you’re on your own.

Central government is not leaving you to sink or swim.

For example, something that always keeps my inbox full is adult social care.

While I was Business Secretary I was very proud to create the National Living Wage.

It’s a much-needed and well-earned pay rise for millions of hardworking people, and one that will help grow the economy too.

But I know it’s causing some concern for councils, especially around the impact on provision of adult social care.

So let me reassure you.

This government has provided and will continue to provide support to local authorities to manage this important change.

And I know demand pressures keep many of you awake at night.

I understand this.

That’s why we’re giving councils access to £3.5 billion of new support for social care by the end of this Parliament.

As part of this, the social care precept will give you the flexibility to raise taxes if you need to, potentially bringing in £2 billion to help some of your most vulnerable people.

I know that some councils can’t raise as much as others this way.

That’s why we’re providing additional funding for the Better Care Fund through a separate grant to local government.

One that targets support where it’s needed most.

And that’s why, together, we are undertaking the Fair Funding Review.

I know many of you work hard to join up with the NHS and give local people a seamless service.

And I know that’s not always easy.

So we’re continuing to work with you and with the NHS to make health and social care integration a success.

Health is not just hospitals and the NHS.

We need a place-based approach, with strong local leaders working to shape provision around the needs of their communities.

And we need them to push forward the integration of health and social care.

The people of England voted for it in 2015, and by 2020 it’s exactly what they’ll get.

But it will only be a real success if it is locally led.

Through all this change, all this turbulence, I want you to remember one thing.

I’m on your side.

We might not always see eye-to-eye.

We might not agree on the best way forward.

We might not find much common ground.

But I am the Secretary of State for Local Government.

And that means I am your secretary of state.

Your voice in Cabinet.

Other ministers may occasionally drift into your orbit.

You’ve already heard from Chris Grayling on transport today.

Jeremy Hunt is in charge of health.

Justine Greening runs education.

They all have some interest in different areas of local government.

But I’m there for you and you alone.

That’s my job.

I know we’ve asked a lot of you over the past few years.

I wish I could say the tough times are behind us.

But unfortunately there are plenty of difficult decisions that still need to be made.

We need to decide where and how to build the hundreds of thousands of homes this country needs, and you have a vital role in that.

We need to decide how to make local government more effective, more efficient and more accountable.

We need to deliver the training that young people and adults need.

We need to make choices about infrastructure and economic development.

We need to meet the ever-changing needs of an ever-growing population in an ever-changing world. That’s a quite intimidating to-do list!

But this is also a hugely exciting time for local government.

Devolution deals are re-energising and re-shaping local democracy.

Local Enterprise Partnerships are breaking down old barriers and bringing communities together to create jobs.

Initiatives like the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse are putting England’s regions on the world stage.

And you’re about to take control of £26 billion of business rates.

By 2020, every council represented in this room is going to be self-financing.

Your taxpayers’ money being spent in your areas.

It’s something you’ve been calling for for decades and I’m hugely proud that it will be delivered on my watch.

You really deserve nothing less.

Our local councils are the bedrock of our democracy, our local councillors are its foot soldiers.

You do so much for so many, and yet you seldom get the credit you deserve.

And that’s particularly true of the counties.

You quietly get on with delivering word-class services to millions of hardworking people – just as you have done since the 19th century.

That’s why people trust you.

That’s why I trust you.

And that’s why we’re devolving so much.

The changes we’re introducing give unprecedented independence and control to county councils.

I know that change can sometimes be difficult.

But if you put yourself at the heart of it…

If you embrace change and strive to succeed…

Well, the opportunities for county councils are almost limitless.

And I will be working every day to help you make the most of them.

Thank you.