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How our radical past can help us meet today’s tough challenges

November 21, 2013

(This blog is based on a speech delivered at the Core Cities Summit in London on 21st November)

There’s a mistaken perception put about that local government is always reluctant to embrace radical change. That we’re the last bastion of outdated working practices, the barrier to progress. 

We all know that is not true, and I wanted to start by reminding us all of our radical roots. Two centuries ago, in cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, people started to come together to talk about the big issues of their time. The coffee houses where people from Hall Green, Gorton or Grainger Town met were the birthplaces of movements that changed British society for the better. 

Those reformers had that precious resource that tends to galvanise any social movement: anger. Anger at injustice and a vision for a better, fairer world. All of England’s core cities played a role in achieving badly needed social change, fighting against an establishment that – when not indifferent – was actively hostile.

The cities were home to revolts and uprisings around everything from rising food prices to the threat of machines in textile mills.

And as well as occasional violent revolt, our radicals engaged. They published pamphlets, formed movements for change, lobbied their often hopeless corrupt MPs and gradually achieved real change. They formed power companies, transport boards, housing corporations. They invested in clean water supplies and sewers, built schools and provided health care facilities. And so the concept of municipal local government was born. 

Centuries on, we need to demonstrate that spirit of radicalism again if we are to meet the challenges of an age of austerity.

  • Our predecessors fought against of the exploitation of child labour and intolerable factory conditions  – we fight against youth unemployment and for a living wage;
  • They fought to demolish slums – we plan for housing growth and decent neighbourhoods.
  • They tackled the scourges of cholera and dysentery – we strive to address deep seated health inequalities.

These are the new campaigns that England’s great cities now need – to address the challenges of the present, and create the opportunities for the future, with the same passion we applied to solve the problems of the past.  

Let me give you some examples of how we want to do things differently. 

In the core cities, we know from our own communities the devastating effects of long-term unemployment. A complex mix of barriers to opportunity: poor health, poor housing, poor skills.  Insecurity in work. Inequality in access to work. 1.3 million people out of work in our core cities, costing £5.7 billion in welfare benefits.

These challenges require local solutions, tailored to the needs of individuals and their communities. They cannot be addressed through contractual relationships with prime providers covering whole regions, through complex payment-by-results mechanisms which distort activity towards those least expensive to help.

The nationally-led, regionally-contracted Work Programme is simply not delivering. From the core cities, on the current level of performance, half a million people will complete the programme without finding work.

In contrast, locally-delivered programmes are delivering better results. While the national Youth Contract programme underperforms, the locally delivered pilots in Leeds, Newcastle and Gateshead are delivering results that are nearly twice as effective. And our work with individual families has shown that, through comprehensive support and early interventions, we can save up to £75 million for every 1,000 families that we work with.

We’re also prepared to take more responsibility for the other big challenge of our time, and respond more effectively to the needs of an aging population.

We want to create age-friendly cities that value the tremendous social and economic contribution of our elders. Instead, we are faced with spiralling bills for social care, creating unsustainable costs for councils and crowding out spending on services which help keep people active and healthy. This is driving pressures on our A&E departments, while the services that could have prevented the need for emergency care are struggling for resources.

The core cities are willing to take responsibility for a new approach.  We need to break through the institutional barriers that get in the way. A more locally-accountable health and social care service, a whole system approach which saves money, and improves care and life chances.

The evidence has shown that this integrated approach could save up to 15% on delivery costs, for reinvestment into services which improve outcomes for our most frail and vulnerable citizens.

So this needs to be a two-way conversation. If we are prepared to be radical, we must persuade Whitehall – which has its fair share of outdated working practices and methods – to do the same and join us on the journey.

Core cities can be the standard bearers for a new way of thinking that benefit both central and local Government, with new arrangements for shared accountability and joint responsibility.

To do this we need “place-based” settlements for public spending in each of our major cities, rather than the fragmenting of scarce resources through multiple Whitehall departments and agencies.

We need long-term commitments that allow us to plan and invest.  Not short term salami-slicing.

And we recognise that this approach requires a culture change in our cities, as well as in Westminster and Whitehall.

Instead of only seeing deficits and dependency, we will build on the considerable assets and talents of our communities. 

A step our radical forefathers would have approved of, moving power to local people, and trusting them to deliver. 

A cooperative future for public services with the community – our citizens – at its heart.

A new, meaningful, localism, founded on mutual respect between central and local government. 

A new generation of social entrepreneurs, seeking to shape the future not trying to change the past. This is our task. This is our offer. And, as core cities, this is our promise.

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