The sidelining and de-funding of local government, notably councils serving some of the poorest parts of London, has been a constant theme of national government policy for a dozen years. Boroughs’ complaints about cuts and centralisation have become routine and often feel futile. The upbeat contrast she provided to that frustration and gloom was a winning feature of a lecture given last week by Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council and chair of London Councils. And it was also about much more than tone.
Gould, 36 and a Labour councillor since she was 24, set out her case for a whole new approach to the conduct and culture of local government: “I want to talk today about the importance of relationships, of deep listening and love in the delivery of public services – not a word we often hear associated with local government”. This is true, and Gould made use of it a number of time in her 45-minute address, the (Joseph) Chamblerlain lecture hosted by Cratus at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street.
“I want to set out a vision for a more human, person-centred welfare state, which embraces social solidarity, belonging and gives everyone a secure safety net,” she said. “Local government can deliver this by removing, self-limiting, siloed services, so staff work alongside communities in high trust environments.” A bit fluffy? Borderline wonkish? Well, Gould acknowledged that concepts like participation and power sharing can “be seen as wooly, or for the well-off or the retired, or too time-consuming”.
But for those for whom the local state is a vexing and intractable part of daily lives to often spent “waiting on the phone for ages” to get repairs done on their homes, and, in some cases, the instrument of the power to take away their children, there’s nothing abstract about the appeal of “a more human, person-centred welfare state, which embraces social solidarity, belonging and gives everyone a secure safety net”. On the contrary, “people are hungry for it,” said Gould.
She described a mindset shift she’s been seeking to make in Camden, which she has led since 2017: “A journey of trying to let go of old structures and hierarchies, seeing the strength and power in our communities and investing in our residents’ capacity to change their lives and neighbourhoods”. She declared herself against a “transactional model of public services” and for a move away from “a hierarchical model” towards a “horizontal and dispersed one” that builds a sense of partnership.
Examples? Gould said her council’s approach to child protection, which many affected had called “traumatic”, has shifted towards staff building candid but trusting relationships with parents and children. She recounted an intensive search for grandparents who had been lost touch with and lived a couple of hours outside London, their general whereabouts established through remembered clues and google maps, and then a trip to the area in question where postcards were put through letterboxes until the grandparents were found and reunited with the child. Here was “a bridge between the professional world of statutory decisions and the human one, which is messy, full of relationships and love”.
In Gould’s view, more such bridges are required – imaginative, responsive, positive. On climate change she urged that tackling it should stop being framed as “taking things away from people” and instead “talking about rebuilding society in a way where people have a chance to thrive, and communities grow closer”. Residents of poor estates, who can feel besieged by “needles on their grass, shit on their doorsteps and rising bills” would sooner have allotments than food banks – agency rather than dependency.
The role of the local council should be to lead but also to convene and steward, fostering initiatives but “not taking over everything”. She declared that “public service models that give people 20 minutes to come in and out are doomed to failure.” Much better that frontline staff are given licence to act on their own initiatives and build relationships. Help from councils can be bad as well as good: the bad kind leads to “feeling trapped, judged and experiencing loss of dignity” along with a heightened sense of insecurity. But good help helps people grow, help themselves and feel hope. She is “a massive fan” of citizens’ assemblies, for which participants are remunerated, ensuring the gatherings are not dominated by more affluent, time-rich residents.
There was, of course, a plea for better government funding, but also for a “new constitutional settlement” with Whitehall – a partnership enshrining “the rights of communities” and power sharing obligations to allow councils to play a far bigger part in helping residents meet the challenges of the still-emerging digital economy. “So many of our problems in this country is the over-centralisation of power…contributed to the lack of trust in politics,” Gould said. She envisaged instead an enlarged “civic entitlement” encompassing “affordable, safe secure homes, access to affordable food, childcare, good work, digital access and the opportunity to be part of shaping your community and decision making.”
The experience of the pandemic has strengthened her convictions. “It has made worse the isolation we’ve seen in our communities and made people more vulnerable to loneliness, fake news and radicalisation and loss of hope in the future,” she said. And yet the initiative and energy with which London boroughs and councils elsewhere rose to it challenges have strengthened her confidence too: “I feel positive about our future, because in every corner of the UK there’s hopeful disruption happening by our communities and their representatives, and I think there’s really a lot of bravery and hope in our councils, in our staff and in our ideas for the future. So I look forward to a new era of municipal imagination, powered by communities and powered by love.”
Photograph of Georgia Gould speaking provided by Cratus.
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