Julie Towers' Learnings from the LGA Conference – one month on, where do we stand?


19 Aug 2019

Julie Towers' Learnings from the LGA Conference – one month on, where do we stand?

One month on from the excellent LGA Conference and, as you would expect, the prevailing issues and agendas from the conference are still on our minds at Penna and those of our clients and candidates.

Some of the issues discussed have naturally moved on. Indeed, our new Prime Minister has impacted a number of the agenda points and announcements from the conference. Cabinet personnel changes, a new Brexit mood and policy shifts all have implications for professional life in local government and the political uncertainty is certainly impacting.

So, here’s my LGA Conference low-down, and where we stand now. 

Local Gov Life

My last blog looked at the exceptional outlook of public servants in local government.

There’s a lot to celebrate, despite the extraordinary pressures our sector faces. The attitude at the conference was one of balance. Attendees were keen to champion a positive outlook despite the very clear current challenges and the uncertainty of the future.  Many felt that we could talk ourselves into negativity and were desperately trying to remain more positive.

This was a finding very much in keeping with our survey of local government Chief Executives. Over 75% of the Chief Executives who responded to our survey said something positive about their workforce; ‘glue, doing very difficult jobs’ was how one CEO described their management level. Another Chief Executive described their Council workers as ‘hard working but bending under the weight of austerity and demand’. Given the ever-increasing demand for Council services and that funding for local government is ‘dwindling to nothing’, the challenge of being innovative in stretched organisations is not particularly surprising.

Priorities, Priorities, Priorities

A number of announcements at the conference have direct repercussions for local government.

Financial announcements at the conference spanned the global reflections of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England to more specific soundbites. Carney’s worldwide financial forecasting has implications for local government. The Bank believes that ‘underlying growth in the UK is currently running below its potential and is heavily reliant on the resilience of household spending’[1], which itself is predicated on an ‘orderly Brexit’. Here there are implications for business rate levels – a measure intended to increase Council funds – with decreased spending, more pressure on high-streets and record numbers of empty shops. Combined with the delayed Spending Review, this is another example of Whitehall putting off local priorities.

Some concerns were notable by their absence. The long-awaited Social Care green paper was the ghost at the feast. Delayed six times over 18+ months, it is a vital first step in turning around social care long term. The LGA predict a funding gap of £3.65 million by 2025 to continue to provide social care at the current levels. Should need increase, as it likely will, that gap will increase. That this national priority is still being ignored at a central level is indisputably adding to the gathering storm.

Yet, echoing the conference positivity and proactivity, the LGA noted in their own paper challenging government inactivity that the absence of action means there is ‘an important movement growing – describing a positive future for ‘care and support’ in its widest sense – which aims to capture the public’s imagination by talking in far more positive terms about how people can be supported to live the lives they want.’           

We’ve seen examples of this within our own networks. Our sponsorship of the MJ Chief Executive Award for Best Senior Leadership Team demonstrated the fantastic innovative and strategic directions our sector is taking. Our winners, Hull City Council, were commended by the judges for‘a vibrant presentation from a team who showed collective ownership and challenge.  They came across as open, authentic and generous – demonstrating a learning culture, a strong focus on succession planning and strengths based in their approach. They made real and live connections between actions and outcomes on performance’.  

Changing of the guard:

James Brokenshire, as expected for a now-confirmed outgoing minister (as he put it, ‘it was for someone else to decide!’[2]whether he would remain in post for Housing, Communities and Local Government) spoke in broad terms during his keynote. What was announced was a review of the audit system, expansion of the Troubled Families programme and a commitment to ‘do more to identify and support struggling councils earlier to prevent failure and protect residents.’

Brokenshire’s replacement, Robert Jenrick, has clarified some priorities – to ‘get Britain building, [and] drive home ownership’[3], a message echoed by Prime Minister Johnson. 

Since the changing of the guard in Downing Street, commitments pertinent to local government have been made. The devolution debate was one of the first priorities mentioned by the new PM, albeit in vague terms; ‘we are going to give greater powers to council leaders and communities… we are going to level up the powers offered to mayors so more people can benefit from the kind of local structures seen in London’[4].

Unsurprisingly the uncertainty of Brexit, and its implications for local government, was widely discussed at the conference. Jenrick announced that every Council should be ready to leave on the 31stof October. In his words; 

‘I am asking all local councils in England to appoint a Brexit lead, who will work hand in hand with me and my team in central government to plan for our exit on 31st October, with or without a deal.’[5]

Chief Executives we’ve been speaking to have been mixed in their views, some feeing very unsupported financially and by the civil service about the key practical issues for their Councils with the exit; others felt it was not an issue they were putting at the top of their priority list.

Talent pool

The LGA conference was an opportunity to thank outgoing members of our community like Lord Gary Porter, LGA Chair since 2015. As a passionate champion of local government, he’s pushed causes including ‘the scrapping of the housing revenue account borrowing cap and… efforts to get combustible materials banned from use on high-rise buildings’[6]. His contribution to the sector can’t be overstated; a fantastic foundation for Cllr James Jamieson to build upon.

Lord Porter has been a supporter of talent development for the sector and has helped with our own Aspirant Chief Executive Programme, so I’d like to add a big THANK YOU from Penna and our clients and candidates who have benefitted enormously from his passion, time and generosity to the sector.

In uncertain times, strong leadership takes on increased importance, as does ensuring a strong talent pipeline. Our own Aspiring Chief Executives programme is testament to this. The programme allows Director level leaders to gain skills and networks to step into the top job.

This programme, and events like the conference, are an important communal sense check for our profession. Allowing us to come together, share learnings and order our collective priorities. The LGA have been a keen supporter and Mark Lloyd and his team provide one of the key modules and this year welcomed our delegates to the conference as part of their learning.

As one ACX member put it;

‘For me the ACX programme has been a fantastic experience. Firstly, I have developed a great external network of like-minded local government leaders on a similar career trajectory which is brilliant for sharing ideas, problems and experiences. Secondly, it’s allowed me to meet many Chief Executives and understand the way they approach the job and how they prepared for their first Chief Executive role.’

If we want a talented future, we must find, excite and secure the talent. 2020 for me will be an important year to continue this work; driving organisations and individuals to be ambitious for their Council and place. We look forward to supporting them all.

What next?

It’s hard to predict what the rest of 2019 will bring. 

Taking the optimism of the conference, and the continued care and innovation local government pours into its work will go some way to counteract ongoing upheaval and uncertainty. If the conference demonstrated one thing it was that priorities around social care and funding, amongst others, should be preoccupying Whitehall. Time will tell how much progress will be made before the 2020 LGA Conference, but the energy and talent around Bournemouth for 3 days in July made me more confident of its ability to go far.

Julie Towers is Penna Managing Director.