A call to arms to contractors

With The New Local Government Network's latest Leadership Index released, Sarah Fraser, head of the Willmott Dixon Foundation looks at what it means for public services...

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) has just released its latest Leadership Index. Based on a survey of 191 council leaders, mayors and chief executives from across the UK (excluding Northern Ireland), it provides an insight into the level of confidence on key issues affecting local government.

The Leadership Index reveals councils’ diminishing confidence in their power and resources to deliver services. Worryingly, only a third of councils feel that they will be able to provide discretionary services, such as libraries and museums, beyond 2023. Councils with social care responsibilities are facing the biggest struggles, with nearly all reporting that they will be unable to deliver more than statutory services in five years’ time. Councils, particularly in the North East of England, are concerned at low-income levels in their local communities. There are deep concerns for what this will mean for the broader economic, social and environmental health of their areas.

The Index is proof, if any were needed, that the financial crisis facing Northamptonshire County Council is unlikely to be a one-off. And this should be of deep concern to all of us. Whichever sector we work in, we all rely on the services of our local authorities provide – from the schools that our children attend, to the support that our ageing parents receive, from the green spaces our families enjoy, to the roads we use every day. Not to mention the further strain this will place on other public services such as health and policing.

I believe that those of us who deliver services to the public sector should be viewing the results of the Leadership Index as a call to arms. Now more than ever, we need to be applying our skills and resources to look at how we can ease the burden on our public sector customers. From providing work experience and apprenticeships to young looked-after people, or those leaving the criminal justice system, to finding new ways to deliver more for less, we can all do something.

But I would also challenge local authorities to think carefully about how they can use their considerable buying power to leverage more for their local communities.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act was designed to encourage those commissioning public services to think beyond narrow, short-term financial costs, to how they could use their contracts to drive more value for local communities.

Some organisations have picked this idea up and run with it. Last year around £25bn of public sector procurement spend was shaped by the Act, leveraging activities worth many millions of pounds more in support of local communities and economies. However, this figure represents less than 10% of taxpayers’ money spent by the public sector on procurement each year.

Local authorities need to be more demanding. They need to be asking questions about how much of their money is being spent in the local community, and how many local people their contractors are employing. They should be setting targets for additional value-adding activities, such as training and apprenticeships, supporting local businesses and charities, improving the environment, helping people with disabilities into work, employing ex-offenders and tackling homelessness. Sure, a single contractor can’t turn around a local economy on its own, but just think what might be possible if the full £268bn of public sector spend was used to leverage further value.

The Leadership Index survey includes 12 recurring questions across three key themes – economy, society and environment – and a series of topical questions which focus on current events affecting local government. The full results of the survey can be downloaded here.