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How ambitious councils can rise above the cuts agenda

Lister Cllr Edward Lister, the leader of Wandsworth Council, says the cuts challenge should prompt councils to rethink their role

Most of today’s local government headlines are about the scale of the spending reductions and the effects these may have on town hall jobs and services.

But that’s no excuse for the more ambitious councils not to raise their sights and seize the opportunity to rethink the way they work and the type of influence they want to exert in their communities.

Any new government is likely to be strong on the rhetoric of its reform in its early days but there’s no doubt this time that the words are being backed by actions.

Make no mistake - the devolution and personal responsibility agenda is for real. And for councils like Wandsworth it’s a chance too show how they can work with the changes to make a difference in every area of public life.

Our distinctively low council tax already demonstrates a commitment to personal choice. It’s about the freedom to spend your own hard-earned money in the way you choose.

Yet a low council tax has never been an end in itself. By making sure we spend our taxpayers’ money on the right things, the council makes people’s lives better. That provides a platform to exercise real community leadership.

We are now challenging councillors, staff, residents, local businesses and partners of every kind to help us identify the priorities for change. We will be open to new models of service delivery which will allow us to punch above our weight on the big social issues such as health and social care, schooling, jobs and housing.

We will be sending out the strongest possible message that at a time of great financial uncertainty the council has the confidence and sense of purpose to take on new challenges in some of the most intractable areas of public policy.

We will seek to engage the whole community in helping to frame the content of the programme. Nothing will be off-limits. We will explore new approaches in schools, families, environment, health, social care, community safety, partnerships, voluntary sector and employment.

We will be building this approach from the bottom up. It will be less about the council ‘doing things’ to its residents and more about freeing them to do or decide things for themselves – and helping them to make a difference.

You can call it localism or even big society but it’s about the council working out with its residents just what it can do best. As such it represents the ultimate test of a council’s powers for community leadership.

At a time when the role and purpose of local government is under greater scrutiny - and threat - than ever before this is the moment to demonstrate just what a powerful force for change and improvement an effective council can be.


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