Delivering district distinction

The District Councils’ Network (DCN) Conference in Kenilworth was the biggest, most important such gathering in the local government calendar – the first since the General Election. 

Our timing couldn’t have been better. Not only were we fully booked, with more than 250 people registered from well over 100 councils, but we had a waiting list after filling a second hotel.

It was a chance to restate our place in the world and commit ourselves to make, and take, opportunities as they appear.

When the Prime Minister talks about Britain being a global catalyst, it is district councils that are local catalysts that grow local economies into a larger national economy. We provide the building blocks that form local housing, commuting and health economies with the mandate to work in every community. We are the people who build better lives and stronger economies in a post-Brexit world, one family at a time, one street at a time, one place at a time.

It is the responsibility of districts to redefine, reimagine and rewire what local public services can and should be like, at a geography that makes sense to residents and business.

The new Government has been making a lot of noise around devolution, with a White Paper due in the coming months. ‘Levelling up’ doesn’t mean sitting devolution out. The Queen’s Speech spoke to functional economic geographies – the areas over which people live their lives, and from which businesses draw their customers. These are the areas of local bus routes; of travelling-to-work areas; of heading to the shops, going to the park, and visiting your friends. These areas are where families have built strong emotional ties over generations.

Districts know these places. We know what makes them tick. It’s the local geography that people recognise and relate to – and we are close enough to these places to shape and enhance local hopes and dreams.

“This was an opportunity for district councillors to discuss how we can engage in devolution to rewire public services around the resident”

Rewiring also means acknowledging that our administrative boundaries don’t make as much sense as they once did. And it’s not just our boundaries. The same applies to the NHS and Department for Work and Pensions, among others. We challenged ourselves to map out ways of better serving residents based on our understanding of what works in the real world and that ‘bigger’ is not better if it means breaking historic ties. 

Taking back control doesn’t mean giving more power to remote administrative bureaucracies, with power and control located miles away in buildings without a customer centre – or where the computer loves to say ‘No’.

At conference this year, the mantra was that we need a responsive local government that takes a global Britain toward 2066, not back to 1066, with a Twitter hashtag #2066not1066 for districts to use whenever we do something innovative or smart.

So conference was an opportunity for district councillors to discuss how we can engage in devolution to rewire public services around the resident. We hope that many will have left Kenilworth with a renewed energy for reflecting on local circumstances and talking with partners about what they want devolution to achieve for their place.

I want to thank all our fantastic speakers from the DCN and the LGA, and the former Chancellor Sajid Javid who sent a video message. I’d also like to thank Sir John Curtice, the man behind the exit poll, and after-dinner speaker Tim Minogue, editor of Rotten Boroughs in Private Eye.

This was the most important DCN conference to date. With Brexit done, our message was crystal clear – we must set the direction for districts as champions of community in the years ahead, and help global Britain to look forward, not back.

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