Local authorities exist to set standards and provide leadership

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Looking down Canterbury High Street towards the Westgate Towers

Local government is meant to be a good thing for the people and areas they represent.

It this therefore important that the power and profile of councils gives them both more responsibility and more leverage to do good than is recognised. The potential role of councils in setting the tone and standards for their area has been sadly neglected, and needs to be revived.

Firstly, directly or indirectly, local government – including Kent County Council and Canterbury City Council – covers huge areas of services which are critical to every one of us, whatever our time of life.

Schooling, social care, planning, licensing, roads and buses, refuse collection, housing and key aspects of healthcare all sit with councils, so there is no question that the effective and properly funded delivery of those services affect all of us, one way or another.

Another consequence of that wide spread of responsibilities is that councils are one of the major employers in the UK, either directly through their own staff or indirectly through services they’ve contracted to the private sector.

All that means that if councils pursue policies based on a particular ideology that ripples right through our society. Thus if the politics on which the policies are based assume that councils’ role should be limited because government is bad and the private sector is good, the impact of that ripples through too.

Such policies try to reduce what councils do, not based on the effect that has but on the assumption that individuals should have a choice about who supplies their schooling, buses, homes and healthcare.

That leads to the introduction of the private sector into socially necessary services, based on the idea that a market in these things creates not only choice for “consumers” but more efficient delivery and innovation.

This supposed choice is, of course, entirely spurious, as anyone who has tried to catch a non-Stagecoach bus around the city knows.

But the idea of innovation is similarly delusional, since councils buy the services through a tender process in which they specify what has to be done in some details – there is simply no room for innovation in most local government contracts, which are in any case usually too short term and too small scale to justify investment in research and development by the providers.

Which begs the question about what exactly the private sector brings to the deal. Well, it must be that famed profit-driven efficiency, mustn’t it?

But again, as users of the roads, refuse collection and other council services experience every week, if there is any efficiency involved it certainly isn’t manifest in the delivery of the services we get.

Nor does the private sector provide more cost effective services, either. They are good at hammering the terms and conditions of their staff, we should grant them that.

Cutting wages, benefits, overtime payments and training: check. Cutting out supervision (those people who make sure the job is done properly): check. Cutting equipment maintenance: check.

Cutting, cutting, cutting. That’s what the private sector is good at, and to hell with the longer term consequences because they only have a five year contract, so long as they take their profit back to their (often) off-shore holding company where it pays no tax.

There is another way of approaching local government services than this irresponsible money driven, know the cost of everything and the value of nothing approach. Because another way councils can provide for the citizens they work for is to drive standards up rather than down.

Councils can provide leadership, vision and establish high quality as the norm in the districts they serve, if they ditch the failed free-market ideology and try focusing on what they are meant to do: serve the people and businesses of the district.

For example, none of our local councils are “living wage” employers. Of course they pay the minimum wage, misleading renamed by George Osborne as the “national living wage”.

But the actual living wage as determined by the independent Living Wage Foundation is almost £1 an hour more than the Government minimum wage – and actually the gap is much bigger if you’re under 25.

Councils could, and should, be taking the lead by insisting that they and all their suppliers pay a wage which people can actually live on without recourse to benefits. Doing that would stimulate competition for the best staff among all local employers, to the benefit not only of employees but also of the exchequer, which would have to pay out less in social security. Many councils already adopt that stance: why doesn’t ours?

Another thought: there is a statutory licensing scheme for rental homes which (to simplify) have more than five occupants, which our council is responsible for.

But it could do so much more to improve the quality of rental properties if it tried to. While it can’t extend the mandatory licensing scheme, it could do more to enforce the current scheme.

And it could introduce a register for all rental housing and lead the way with a quality check scheme which recognised the best homes and landlords. Doing that would raise the bar on the quality of homes, recognise and reward investment by landlords, and provide reassurance to tenants.

Interventions like this are not exactly innovations, since many councils already make these and other similar interventions to positively influence the behaviour of the private sector.

It doesn’t even require an end to outsourcing to do it, although many people support the ending of that practice.

What it does require, though, is a council which isn’t in thrall to the supposed wonders of the private sector and is prepared to show real leadership to raise standards in the district. It’s time our council became that council.

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