Will they save or squander the responsibility?
The proposed devolution of government budget to regional clusters of councils means these local groups will have greater autonomy on how to spend their pot of money.
This step towards devolution is being spearheaded in the North West, where the 10 Greater Manchester Councils have already taken responsibility for their health and social care budgets.
This is part of what the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said will help create a “Northern Powerhouse”, and rebalance an economy that is heavily weighted towards London and the South-East.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill completed its third reading in the House of Lords in July and will be debated this autumn. Many other areas are lining up to follow Manchester’s lead and make their own decisions about housing, transport, social care and other areas.
It’s a huge opportunity for councils to change how they currently do things and to think of creative ways to do more with their money.
But what does that mean in practice?
Well, all councils do the same stuff. They all offer the same services, such as housing and waste management to citizens. And these services are all supported by the same back-room departments such as finance, HR and IT.
By working together as one and sharing support services across the 10 councils in Manchester, for example, they can eradicate a lot of duplication of effort. Why have 10 IT departments, when one would work just as well?
So one council could take responsibility for IT across the region in a shared service approach. Another could take care of HR. Another finance.
But for this to work there has to be a good enough grid infrastructure underlying the whole region of councils to be able to link services together. Without that underlying technology providing the ability to connect worker, this will struggle.
The North West is ahead of the game and we will see the North East begin the same journey. In the North East there are many councils, each with their own IT departments, and I’d like to see that becoming one with a greater focus on growing tech innovators in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as already championed by Sunderland CC over the last decade.
The logic is hard to argue against. The technology is there to make this transformation, and it will make local government more efficient.
And let’s not forget the not inconsequential matter of 40% budget cuts heading racing towards councils. This seems an easy way of helping reduce some of those costs.
If you can sense a ‘but’, you’d be right. The ‘but’ is people and politics. With little fiefdoms of power across the regions, people are reluctant to yield and will do what they can to stop it happening. No matter what the logic.
There are plenty of examples where local government have called in the big-gun consultancies to try and help different groups such as local fire and police services share resources. But progress has been slow and painful, because people don’t want change and to relinquish any power.
Many councils are refusing to see the elephant in the room and keep pushing on regardless, feeling the squeeze department by department. A painful process. And there are plenty of commercial organisations waiting in the wings to take over the burden.
With devolution comes greater responsibility for regional government. They are the ones on the front line, so they should determine where best to spend their money to match their particular region’s needs.
But this greater responsibility is double-sided. All eyes will be on them. If something goes wrong, there is no one else to blame. So will they put internal political squabbles aside and rise to the challenge?