Devolution Summit – 9 February 2015
Speech given at the Devolution Summit on 9 February 2015.
My name is Nick Forbes, I’m leader of Newcastle City Council and I also lead on Public Sector Reform for Core Cities UK.
Before I respond formally to Phillip, I want to say how great it is to be here in Glasgow today. It was a privilege to sign the Charter for Local Freedoms in a city that saw such a renewal and resurgence of democratic debate and engagement during last year’s independence referendum.
I want to thank Phillip and the ResPublica team for their dedication to produce a radical vision of how devolution to our cities might ‘work’ in practice. It makes a valuable contribution to what is becoming one of the ‘great debates’ of British politics.
ResPublica has set out a clear and achievable timetable for action and produced a report that underlines how close the links are between devolution and reforming our public sector.
They also set out a compelling vision of how a ‘smarter state’ might work, empowering our citizens and renewing our localities.
The key to this vision is in the ‘local’, the places that we all call home. But I don’t see the future of these places as City States, as referenced in the title to this report. To me, that sounds like something out of 16th century Europe.
Instead of the walled city, I see places that are open to new ideas and that spread their wealth and knowledge around their localities.
Our cities are more than just buildings within tight boundaries, they often serve as drivers of their regions. For many people a nearby city provides education, employment and entertainment.
I want shared states that help UK plc become more globally successful whilst maintaining their strong local identity.
There is a strong Public Sector Reform element to this report. Public Sector Reform. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting subject does it? If someone approached you at a party and introduced it as a conversation topic, you might try to edge towards the door.
But as I’ll demonstrate, Public Sector Reform will touch and improve millions of lives. It has the potential to make people across the UK happier, healthier and more prosperous. We can produce a smarter state that meets their needs despite this era of austerity.
It might seem strange to you, to hear a Labour politician endorsing a report by a Think Tank that’s often described as ‘right of centre’.
But Public Sector Reform is also not political, at least not with a big ‘P’. It’s embraced by everyone who wants a smarter state, anyone who is sick of seeing valuable resources wasted, anyone who wants the potential of millions of lives to be fully realised.
And if done correctly and with the involvement of local people it can transform neighbourhoods and give our local democracy a much needed shot in the arm.
And one of the best things about Public Sector Reform, is that it’s actually happening right now, it towns and cities across the UK. We need to start talking about it as a concept but as a movement that is already taking hold.
Like the devolution debate itself, it is gradually moving from Think Tank to mainstream. From policy to people.
But first I need to tell you what Public Sector Reform is not.
It is not a ‘silver bullet’, it will not automatically provide a solution to the terrible toll austerity is taking on the people of Newcastle and our other great cities.
The clue to Public Sector Reform is in the title – it will require a decent and fairly funded Public Sector to work.
As I’ve said before, devolution is all very well – but you need something left to devolve down to. If Government continues on its single-minded ideological course to reduce public spending to record low levels there may simply not be the capacity to manage the transformation from old to new.
We may differ on the detail, but the general consensus is that there’s a better way to manage the state and our millions of interactions with it.
A way to avoid the duplication, waste and artificial separation that holds us back and wastes so much talent and energy.
If we adopt a ‘whole place’ approach and devolve budgets downwards to a local level, we can begin to make a difference to our most complex and hardest-to-solve social problems.
And we need to remember that those successes when they happen, aren’t just ticks on a spreadsheet. They represent lives that have been improved, transformed, turned round, even saved.
So in the city I lead, the success of our Newcastle Families Programme, our version of the Government’s Troubled Families initiative – which uses local know-how to break down the barriers between services to get children into school and parents into work – shouldn’t be seen in terms of numbers of families reached or the payments by results we receive from Government.
It should be seen in the difference that our local approach has made to lives blighted by poor expectations and poverty.
The hope it has brought to people who in the past felt written off and frustrated by the state.
The family who now have a decent income and can afford a holiday or to move to a better home, the child who no longer sees school as something to avoid or disrupt but as somewhere they can learn and feel safe.
One parent, asked what another local version of this national programme had changed about their lives, said: “Everything, we’ve gone from being a household not capable of anything to a rebuilt family.”
Imagine the difference doing things differently, of joining up services and setting simple, clear, objectives, made to that family.
Imagine the savings it will make to the public purse, the future precious revenue that won’t have to be spent on reactive health, education or policing.
The fact that it is so local, that it is managed by people who know and care for an area and the people in it means that families now have a chance to contribute, they feel for the first time that they have a stake in the system.
And that’s not just good for them, it’s good for our democracy and it couldn’t have been realised using the old ‘top down’ way of doing things where solutions were imposed from a Whitehall mandarin’s desk hundreds of miles away.
It’s an example of how devolution does not weaken, it strengthens and enhances – it underlines the enormous potential of what we are discussing today.
And that sense of the local should be key to any talk of public sector reform. As the Respublica report makes clear, reform won’t take hold unless it is locally driven.
It simply won’t work unless cities have the right financial freedoms to be able to make a difference on the ground.
It cannot be a top-down reform, to really make it work we need to return to the beginnings of local government, before our country became the centralised and inflexible state it is today.
We need to return to a radical reforming spirit that saw our civic forefathers take matters into their own hands, driven by an anger at social injustice and a desire for a better state.
It was civic leaders in the 19th century who invested in clean water supplies and sewers, saving thousands of lives. It was they who built schools and provided health care facilities.
They founded the principle of municipal local government.
But over the last 60 years, somewhere in that post war consensus that brought us a welfare state and a National Health Service – we lost that spirit of freedom and radicalism. We mistakenly thought that a ‘one size fits all’ central solution was best and slowly and surely Whitehall took over.
Local Government became seen as a barrier not an enabler to progress and its spirit of innovation and difference became something to be feared, not celebrated.
Now we need a new settlement with Government so we can return our town halls to their radical ‘can do’ roots. Today’s Charter for Local Freedoms and this valuable report set out how might be able to do that.
It is the only way we will successfully meet the challenge of austerity, delivering high quality services, enabling economic growth and looking after the vulnerable.
No change is not an option, the world is moving fast and people expect their public services to match that pace of change.
Many aspects of our lives, from dating to travel, from selling a car to buying music, have been changed forever by a technological revolution.
Our citizens, and everyone in this room, expect and deserve faster, better, more local solutions that take account of the diversity of their lives and their neighbourhoods.
It is only through devolving powers to a more local level that can make this happen and only by doing this will we renew our democracy and make our cities truly great again.