Faced with depleting local authority resources and in times of change – both in terms of political leadership, centralisation vs devolution, economic challenge and environmental change – can ‘commissions’ such as those set up in Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool help shape the future strategic direction of a city’s commitment to environmental sustainability?
As local strategic partnerships have been cut, shelved or marginalised, it is encouraging to see city leaders ask their key stakeholders and the wider community to help shape their thinking. The cynics might suggest that in the absence of a well stocked larder of local authority resources this is the city doing it on the cheap. I would suggest that, even if city councils were fully staffed with experts in a wide range of disciplines, the approach certainly has its merits in getting buy-in from the voluntary and community sector, the private sector, academia and the public sector. It can be a useful way of securing commitment and engaging with those organisations not democratically answerable to the electorate too.
The three cities cited here are all at different stages of progressing this approach – with Birmingham been the first to set up a commission and produce a strategy, Liverpool making good progress and due to report by the end of 2014 and Sheffield in third place.
Perhaps it is too early to judge whether this approach is effective, with Birmingham only now embarking on the implementation and in the shadows of some serious public sector cuts.
However, I would argue that the process as much as the output is beneficial – such that individuals, companies, communities and institutions feel they can make a valid contribution – not not just in offering ideas, but in delivery too. New models of delivery based on cross-sector collaboration will be key whatever each city decides to prioritise.
But there are some key questions that need to be answered, not least: What should be the role of the Council? I believe there are three approaches councils are now taking:
1) Frontline service provider – where they are doing the right thing for today’s customers now. These are focusing on the most vulnerable often in areas of high deprivation in a targeted fashion. This approach is creating innovation in the short term and responding to immediate impacts of public sector cuts.
2) Generator of new funding / income streams – where the Council is being entrepreneurial and taking some risks in order to ensure they are doing the right thing for the council in the medium term. This might, for example, be the creation of an energy company that reduces fuel poverty and creates a new revenue (income) stream that can be used to subsidise and support other council services.
3) Enabler and facilitator where the city recognises the need to attract investment by usign its own understanding of the city and its needs to create an attractive prospectus for investment and development. This can be at odds with both options 1 and 2 because it means investing in services which are not front line and need not necessarily mean the city council itself benefits financially from that investment. Of all the options this is the long term one.
In truth, a strong city council leader will attempt to deliver against all three in both the short, medium and longer term. Perhaps the only chance they have of doing that is in partnership with other public, private and their sector partners with a healthy challenge from academia.