We are all struggling to process the last few days and make sense of the implications. The focus over the coming weeks will be on party politics, but this is a moment of dislocation for those of us working in and with public services, too. There will be implications for public spending, policy and delivery capacity, not to mention for staff from EU countries. But a Brexit vote also puts further strain on the underlying principles of a welfare model that despite 30 years of pecking at the edges is still based on the notion that services for everyone play a role in supporting societal cohesion.
The disconnect between the language of civic institutions and that of a large proportion of the public through this process has been striking. People spoke with the language they have, and using the opportunity that was presented to them. It would be foolish in the extreme not to stop and wonder whether we have really been listening properly. Austerity has driven a strange set of behaviours – innovation, surely, but also a steady hum of existential panic above which it is difficult for the voice of residents, communities and patients to be heard, let alone reflected in transformation processes. The EU referendum is a crisis that exposes these voices and needs to force a re-think once again the way we design and deliver public services.
That re-think needs to begin through the lens of place. As many people have already reflected upon, big leave votes occurred in places that have been at the sharp end of economic deprivation for decades, experience educational inequalities, and are places where people feel they are not benefitting from a more mobile and networked economy. These historic Labour heartlands have not benefitted significantly from the economic or social policies of either Labour, Coalition or Tory governments, and some of them (Hartlepool, Doncaster, Stoke on Trent) have previously used similarly blunt sticks such as mayoral elections to send a message to the political establishment, both local and national.
While all of this must be a matter for serious consideration by national political parties left and right, it is critical that we recognise that this is only part of the picture. We have already seen that economic equality can’t be delivered from Whitehall alone; an acknowledgement upon which the Northern Powerhouse agenda is based.
The opportunities for economic growth, for improvements in health and educational outcomes, the narrowing of inequality lie in a different relationship between localities and the centre – realised at the scale of local authorities and of city regions. This scale is where communities can be brought together, differences explored and common ground found. It is where behaviour and attitudes can be influenced. It is where face-to-face democratic engagement (not through the lens of the TV screen) can be rebuilt. And it is where the value of public investment and services can be used to understand, support and grow community assets so communities – not just services or government – are part of how we collectively achieve positive change in our communities.
Three things stand out as being critical:
1 Inclusive growth is vital and it needs collaborative public services – an emerging narrative around inclusive growth is welcome, and it is critical that the concept is taken seriously in a way that addresses obvious anger about inequality and disenfranchisement. This is not just about the perception of false promises from government, but a real need to address a skewed distribution of wealth and start thinking about quality of life and livelihoods beyond the simplistic metric of whether people have a job or not. None of this can be done with rump public services that exist only to meet need or market failure. It is vital that we make the case for strong, collaborative public services built around citizens’ lives, and argue a positive case for welfare as a way of building our capacity to be socially and economically productive.
2 Strengthening social capital is still absolutely fundamental – time and again we see research that tells us that the ties that bind us together, creating solidarity even where there is diversity, have been eroded or left to wither. Perhaps traditionally the domain of the community, the informal and the third sector – the sports clubs, the churches, the playgroups and so on – this ‘web’ has provided the first line of defence against social ills and isolation. This decline should now become the concern of the state, because when it doesn’t work public services (from blue light services to the acute health sector) pick up the consequences. This is not an argument for a bigger, but a more collaborative and enabling state. As stewards of places, there is a huge amount that civic institutions can do to connect, enable and include people in formal and informal civic activities, helping them to carve out a positive stake and investment in their communities.
3 Devolution must continue and go further – if devolution to towns and cities hadn’t already begun, we would be calling for it today. It seems clear that some communities feel alienated by a remote Westminster elite that does not speak to their circumstances and concerns. Decisions should be taken closer to where they affect people’s lives and the resources of the state invested in building accountable services and activities that are responsive to local circumstances and the needs and assets in our communities. We must also ensure the benefits of city regional devolution are felt by the wider ‘region’ – the towns and areas that surround the core city. Shifting opportunity in these areas is the critical measure of success and will be a marker against which efforts to promote inclusive growth will be judged. The role of local politicians – and indeed their ability to play a more positive role strengthening the social ties noted above and promoting ‘fair’ growth – is absolutely central.
These are all arguments we have made before and will make again – inclusive, collaborative place-based change is what we do. In localities across the UK the case is already being made in practice. Accelerating this progress feels even more important now than ever.
Anna Randle is Head of Public Services and Henry Kippin is Executive Director of Collaborate CIC. @annarandle @h_kippin www.collaboratei.com
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