Local leadership is key to levelling up inequalities and delivering an economic recovery that benefits all.
As a nation we have been through an unprecedented 15 months.
The true impact of COVID-19 is not yet fully clear and will be felt for years to come. But there is much that we have learnt from this pandemic and that national government can learn from local government.
Government has coordinated the national strategy to tackle the pandemic, protecting jobs and businesses, rolling out vaccines and providing information to the public.
But it is local government that has turned this response into a reality on the ground – with local responses recognising different local needs.
This is a key theme of our annual conference report, which will be published next week when we meet virtually from 6-8 July.
The pandemic has highlighted the immense value of the strong local leadership provided by councils and the exceptional commitment of councillors and council staff who have been on the frontline in the battle against the virus.
Working closely with central government, local NHS partners, voluntary and community groups, they have put in a monumental effort to support and protect local communities.
During the crisis, central and local government have shown what can be achieved when we work together towards a shared goal – tens of thousands of rough sleepers and homeless people helped off the streets, millions of the most vulnerable shielded from the virus, and local businesses supported to keep them going and save jobs.
Councils, with their directors of public health, have also been at the centre of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 in all its variants and support our hugely successful vaccination programme.
The pandemic has brought about rapid societal change, transforming people’s attitudes, behaviour and aspirations for what they want from their local community. For so many, their local area matters more now than it ever did. We need to value difference and the local voice, as that is what people want.
This means that the role local authorities play will have a greater significance as we all reimagine what our post-pandemic lives will look like.
Councils now want to build on this momentum and work with the Government, as equal partners, to achieve our shared ambition to level up communities that feel left behind by investing in people and transforming places.
One of the most important lessons from the pandemic is that public services are at their best when government enables councils to innovate and deliver new services locally. Those local differences must be viewed as positive, responding to local need that will be very different in different places.
We need to value difference and the local voice. Understanding local difference enables the delivery of services which respond to local need and genuinely level up communities.
In our conference paper, we explore a series of ‘pen portraits’ to give a resident-centred view of local services and explore the future journeys our residents will be facing.
They show that, as we build back better from the pandemic, our communities will need councils and the local services they provide more than ever before.
“For so many, their local area matters more now than it ever did”
If the Government is to fulfil its pledge to level up the entire country and improve the lives of all its citizens, it will need adequately funded and empowered councils everywhere.
Bringing power and resources closer to all of us is the key for all our communities to thrive. This is a vision supported by many in Parliament and by residents, three-quarters of whom trust their local council to make decisions about how services are provided locally.
More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of MPs say local councils are best placed to administer the delivery of public health and 72 per cent to run contact tracing; 80 per cent say councils should have more financial freedoms and powers to build homes in their area; and 72 per cent that they should have more control over local taxes, according to our own polling.
However, unsustainable funding pressures continue in respect of children’s services, adult social care, and homelessness, leaving less money for councils to fund other services our communities rely on, like fixing potholes, cleaning streets and running leisure centres and libraries.
The forthcoming Spending Review is a real opportunity for the Government to provide a multi-year settlement that puts local government funding on a long-term sustainable footing. This will enable councils to more efficiently support government ambitions and plan the local services communities rely on, and which have proved so vital during the pandemic.
Local government has demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis that its biggest asset is its ability to lead and deliver on the most pressing issues facing residents right across the nation.
This local leadership is the only way we can tackle the significant challenges that lie ahead and ensure we improve lives and build inclusive growth in every corner of the country. That is a powerful offer to government and a proven route during this pandemic that should now be the cornerstone of our national recovery.
As we come through the most difficult period many of us have ever faced, we cannot afford to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ‘build back Local’.