Opinion Piece - Blog

Recruitment needs a radical rethink

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

The Government kicked off its election campaign last week on the back of much rejoicing about the latest inflation figures. It is clear to see some politicians are pinning their hopes on lower inflation equating to higher votes.

But the sight of Westminster politicians crowing about the numbers while steadfastly ignoring the lived reality that many families are still struggling to afford basics such as food, energy and rent, reveals how disconnected our national politicians are from life on the ground in our places.

“Fix the broken system”

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

At a time when both Westminster and the Scottish Government have U-turned on their climate commitments, local governments across the UK are plugging the gap in their efforts to tackle climate crisis. However, while localities recognise that climate action will be one of the critical factors shaping our places so that they are fit for the future, this work often goes under the radar, under-appreciated and under-funded.

Local authorities are taking action on climate because they know it’s the right thing for their places and not, as one officer put it, “because the government is allowing us to.”

Putting the community in community wealth building 

Last week I had the honour of delivering the opening keynote presentation at the Third Sector Interface Scotland (TSI) Network conference. This was their first in person conference since before the onset of Covid-19, and the magnitude of the many challenges the third sector in Scotland has faced in recent years was never far from my mind throughout the day.  

The legacy of harsh austerity policies, a global pandemic and continued economic uncertainty (globally and closer to home as we have seen with the recent Scottish political upheaval) have all tested our communities’ resilience in ways we’ve never known before. But what was heartening to hear from delegates at the conference was how the third sector has continually risen to these various challenges. 
“a large and significant economic force”
At the height of the pandemic, the TSI Network was able to support the third sector as it responded, at pace, to the difficult conditions which were faced in our places. This raised the profile of the sector, with local groups, with their unique insights into local conditions, on hand to mobilise and deliver services where the public sector struggled to reach. Beyond the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, recent research has shown the significant impact the third sector has on the Scottish economy overall, in terms of employment, volunteering and economic spend. With income generated totalling over £8.5bn per annum, the sector is a large and significant economic force in the Scottish economy.  

Left and behind: women at work

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

In the run-up to the General Election, we will hear more about the need for a relentless focus on building a stronger economy in the UK – an economy that works for everyone. If we are really serious about a mission-based approach to our economy, we need to commit to building gender equality into our economic strategies, both at a combined and local authority level and with an appreciation of how gender intersects with other structural factors such as ethnicity, class, disability and age.

Recent research by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) suggests the UK may be losing as much as £88.7bn every year from our economy due to the disadvantages women encounter in the labour market. This leads to under-employment and lower pay. It is the equivalent to the annual contribution of the UK’s financial services sector.

Westminster fiddles while local government burns

As the Government prepares for its last Spring Budget before the upcoming general election, it’s easy to assume that all eyes are fixed on Westminster. The reality, however, is that the soldiers in the trenches of our local economies – politicians, officers and activists – are more concerned about their existential future, and are expecting little, if anything, from this Budget – writes CLES researcher, Tallulah Eyres.

Released last week, the LGiU’s annual state of local government finance report argues that the dire state of local government finances now goes well beyond business as usual. The balance has tipped, they say, and the report paints a desperate picture of councils grappling with insufficient funding to maintain essential services, with more than half of local government leaders warning that they now face bankruptcy in the next five years. Despite urgent warnings from the IMF to prioritise public spending, there is scant indication of any fundamental change forthcoming from Westminster.
“crumbs from the masters table”
Instead, the anticipated crumbs to fall from the masters table, including extensions of tax advantages for new Investment Zones and Freeports, are primarily focussed on using various fiscal incentives to attract investment. Admittedly, these place-based approaches are targeted towards disadvantaged communities but, as my colleague Sean Benstead uncovered in his research last year into Freeports, previous experiments with low tax and tariff zones have fallen short in addressing regional economic inequality or stimulating job creation. Instead, they risk extracting wealth and opportunity from hard-pressed communities by diluting workers’ rights, displacing businesses and facilitating tax evasion.

Asset disposal shouldn’t be a fire sale

This article originally appeared on British Politics and Policy, part of LSE Blogs at the London School of Economics.

In late January reports emerged that Westminster is quietly pushing forward plans to loosen budget rules for councils, enabling them to sell off their assets in order to fund front-line services like adult social care, children’s safeguarding and waste collection. While, on the face of it, this looks to be a welcome gift for the many councils currently facing bankruptcy, this change in the rules is potentially fraught with risk.

The danger is that – desperate to raise cash – councils will enter a fire sale of their assets to the highest bidders, fuelling the extraction of wealth from land and assets with the potential to create public value. What needs to happen instead is for councils to be given the opportunity to pass on their assets in a manner that supports the local community and economy, while also raising necessary funds.

Time for a fightback

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

The first few months of the year are grim at the best of times, but this January felt particularly bleak for those of us working at the local level.

News of section 114 notices – pending and issued – came thick and fast as the local government financial crisis accelerated. I found myself wondering frequently about how hospitals and councils manage to motivate and encourage staff in a context where they are being continually told that there are no resources to deliver the quality of care that we would all want for our loved ones.
“a backwards shift”
Adding to this grim picture is the further stripping back, not just of funding, but of the standards which govern how public resources should be used. In particular, both the moves to allow councils to sell off their assets in order to plug holes in budgets and the reports of decreasing social value ratings for procurement in cash-strapped councils signal a backwards shift to the days when the concept of value was focused on financial return alone.

Progressive planning frontiers

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

The origins of the English planning system can be traced to an increased awareness of the role of the built environment in public health outcomes which came to the fore in the 1870s, following decades of cholera epidemics in cities and London’s Great Stink. The goal of formal planning rules, as they emerged in 1909 – to improve the basic living standards of the most vulnerable – evolved over subsequent decades to become an ambitious system of state-led powers for local authority control over development. Today, however, many of those early principles have been lost.

Local development and regeneration activity is now predominantly delivered by the private sector, and concerns are often raised that objectives to support good, healthy lives for local communities have taken a backseat to the need to capture value through rents and tax income.
“councils are understandably wary”
While most councils are still able to exercise control over local development, through responding to applications for planning consent, the scope for refusing them has narrowed. The Town and Country Planning Act enables a local authority to impose “such conditions as they think fit” on applications, which could be a lever to place obligations on developers to contribute to progressive local outcomes, councils are often wary of pushing developers too far. Many local authorities rely on the private sector, not only to create development in their places, but also to bolster much needed council tax and business rate revenue – placing extra conditions raises the risk that those private developers will choose another place to do business. Outright refusal is similarly fraught with danger, and councils are understandably wary of costly High Court appeals by disappointed applicants.

Right place and time for change

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

This week all eyes will be on the Autumn Statement. While the headlines will likely focus on questions of tax and public funding on the national level, the question of whether local government will receive any relief from more than 13 years of austerity will probably not make the cut.

Yet the systematic defunding and devaluing of local government is – I would argue – one of the reasons why there are growing levels of poverty, hardship and destitution, creating huge vulnerability in places across the UK, generating significant pressure in the NHS and in social care and undermining the potential of local economies. For decades, every chancellor has stood at the dispatch box and argued their plan is the one that will set this country on the path to prosperity for all. That they will deregulate, bulldoze, cut through regulation, look under stones in the pursuit of growth. Few are bothered about the quality of the economy they are nurturing, merely the upward trajectory. Often the most important question is missed: who benefits?
“The gap between those who have least and most is growing”
Take Greater Manchester, for example, where recent CLES research shows the city region’s economy has more than doubled since 1998. Yet a third of children live in poverty, there are 16,000 live applications for social housing and 390 neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in the UK. The wealth of the average Greater Manchester resident, including property and other assets, is around £84,400 while the 11 richest individuals in the city region have a combined wealth of more than £9.3bn. The gap between those who have least and most is growing year-on-year.

A great leveller

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

Despite its clear flaws, the Levelling Up Fund is one of the few funding mechanisms councils can access to provide much needed investment in their places.

Launching this week, a new report from the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and the Centre for Local Economic Studies (CLES) provides a guide for how councils can avoid falling into the trap of developing regeneration initiatives that extract wealth and deliver poor outcomes for people, place and planet, with a toolkit for projects to maximise their positive impacts locally.

A compelling vision

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal, where our Chief Executive, Sarah Longlands, writes a regular viewpoint column.

Conversations with local economic development officers this week reminded me, once again, of how difficult it is to fund the desperately needed transformation of places.

This scarcity of funding means that councils have to be pragmatic. Many are attempting to develop funding packages from the many and various national schemes and there is an ever-increasing reliance on private sector investment both from the UK and abroad. But there is a bitter irony in a government thinking that they can continue to cut funds to local government yet still expecting them to devise top notch investment propositions for private investors.
“a perpetual state of crisis”
Place-based policy in the UK continues to rely on the assumption put forward by George Osborne’s 2010 budget: that investment in public services must be dependent on their ability to generate growth. This ouroboric logic has resulted in more than a decade of grinding austerity, leaving communities, and some local councils, in a perpetual state of crisis.

Be brave when times are tough

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal, where our Chief Executive, Sarah Longlands, writes a regular viewpoint column.

Inflation may have eased, but there are tough times ahead. Sarah Longlands urges local authorities to step outside their comfort zone and reimagine economic growth

Early in my career, I worked as an economic development officer at Barnard Castle, with the objective of marketing the town to visitors in order to support local businesses and jobs. Little did we know at the time that all we needed to put this vibrant historic town back on the map was a certain person’s eye test.

Getting healthier and wealthier

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal, where our Chief Executive, Sarah Longlands, writes a regular viewpoint column.

I had the opportunity to spend time in Birmingham recently as part of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies’ (CLES) work with the Birmingham Anchor Network. Post-pandemic, the Integrated Care System (ICS) in the city has completely revitalised its recruitment approach – tearing up its 17-page application form in the process.

This new approach to recruitment puts the onus on the organisation rather than individuals, and has enabled people – particularly those with transferable skills but a lack of opportunities in the beleaguered hospitality industry – to come and work in health and social care.

Five practical ways to kick start your community wealth building journey

Over the last week – in the build up to today’s Community Wealth Building Summit – my colleagues Lauren Bond, Charlie Murphy and I have been running a series of webinars, taking delegates through the fundamentals of a community wealth building approach.

It’s testament to the journey we have been on since the last “in person” Summit, held in the summer of 2019, that this “getting people up to speed” is now an adjunct to the main programme, as opposed to making up much of the bulk of it, as it did three years ago. In 2022, so many places are getting on with the business of building community wealth that they are looking to the Summit as a chance to get even deeper in their conversations, to go further in their journeys.