It’s taken a few days to sink in. Unlike several commentators who are now trying to claim they foresaw the Conservative majority in Parliament, I will admit to being surprised by the General Election results. The collapse of the LibDems and the rise of the SNP may have been more predictable, but even here the sheer size of the shift seems incredible. Labour’s strategy seems to have imploded, and in the final reckoning the Conservatives’ reputation for financial judiciousness won the day.
So what does this mean for the future of public services in the next five years and beyond?
Without their erstwhile partners the Lib Dems to temper some of the Tory proposals, those working in the sector may be expecting the worst. Certainly the preceding five years of austerity, public funding cuts & the dismissive rhetoric of prominent Tories will stoke the fears of many in local government.
The pledges made in the Conservatives’ manifesto and during the election campaign raise as many questions as answers. The (in)famous £12bn in welfare cuts remain shrouded in mystery, but the potential for pain is clear. The future of social housing, already suffering from years of neglect, has been destabilised further by the election promise of the extension of right to buy. Even the devolution of powers to local areas is largely cloaked in the nebulous phrase "Northern Powerhouse".
This is a bugbear of mine, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, how exactly is the "North" being defined? There is no agreement what this term even means in Doncaster, never mind Downing Street. I heard an interviewee in Newcastle scoffing at the idea of a Mancunian hub for the Powerhouse, as that city was "in the south" as far as he was concerned. Westminster soundbites will not help the cause of subsidiarity. The second reason is that the focus on the "North", whilst politically astute during the campaign, side-lines huge swathes of the country where the appetite, potential & need for greater responsibility & accountability is just as valid as that of Manchester, West Yorkshire & beyond. I hope the business rates pilot scheme in Cambridgeshire is an indication of the broadening of this canvas.
And yet there are reasons for optimism. The appointment of Greg Clark as Communities Secretary indicates a continued emphasis on devolution and decentralisation, together with a more collegiate and constructive approach to Whitehall’s relationship with local authorities. The Conservatives have thus far been much more open to asymmetric devolution proposals, and although the city-centric approach may continue to hold sway the Tory shires will no doubt be lobbying for their own deals. This suggests the fundamental shift in local accountability and autonomy dreamt of by many in local government may be within reach.
To make this possible, the pre-election momentum must not be wasted. The incoming government has an overflowing in tray, particularly with the Nationalist surge in Scotland and the perennial EU referendum issue for the Conservative Party. Missed opportunities at this stage may be lost forever. The DevoManc deal, Centre for Cities’ excellent publications, the Key Cities manifesto, the Non-Met report, and many more – all of these documents, positions and offers have built a case for devolution of some kind.
Perhaps now is the time for a collective voice for local authorities of all types – metropolitan, district and county – to pull all of this together as a menu of options for central government. Much as the LGA’s excellent "First 100 Days of the Next Government" has set out a range of proposals for radical change to help address the financial and systemic problems in local government, the devolution agenda requires a comprehensive, collective voice. This may result in a loss of sovereignty for some, and may require a fundamental reassessment of how the public, private and voluntary sectors work together in future to focus on local priorities.
But place based budgets, financial autonomy, early intervention for complex issues, innovative service design: all these & more are up for grabs. The opportunity to create a vibrant, sustainable future for local government is there to be grasped; the sector must seize its chance.
Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk