On public services in the 2020s

The UK remains one of the most centralised states, yet economic and social challenges play out every day in our communities. Local government and its partners are well placed to understand need and be a champion for their place. But for local public services to effectively address these issues there need a new relationship between them, central government, and citizens. 

It has long been accepted that we live in complex and uncertain times, a sense that has been heightened in post-Brexit Britain as we attempt to navigate our way through a significant period of change and uncertainty. This is compounded by predictions covering all aspects of social, economic and political life, from work (20% of jobs will be lost to automation) to ageing (40% of today’s six-year olds will live to be 100). However, I believe there are three dominant macro-trends of the 2010s that will play-out in the 2020s and which will shape the future of public services. The first two, rising need and reducing resource, are leading to major social implications that manifest differently in different parts of the country leading to the third trend, spatial inequality. 

We live in a country with increasing numbers of homeless people, where food banks are a staple means of survival for many, where a third of children are living in poverty. For the first time in a generation we are starting to see life expectancy fall in some areas. At the same time, other factors compound this uncertainty: from zero-hours contracts preventing peo- ple planning on a stable income to the promise of tech-enabled services that remain inac- cessible to many who need them. Perhaps it should be little wonder that mental health and obesity are two of the major public health concerns of our times. 

Not only have social needs been increasing, but the resources available to local public ser- vices have been severely constrained. Local authorities, for example, have seen their fund- ing from central government halved since 2010. This impacts their ability not only to re- spond to need but also to invest in prevention, reducing demand in the long-run. Funding for youth services, early years, community health, lifelong learning, and so on has been cut significantly in some areas and completely in others. A reliance on the voluntary and com- munity sector to ’step in’ to areas where services are withdrawn favours areas with high lev- els of social capital and disadvantages others. 

The impact of national social and economic trends is compounded by geographical varia- tions in need and resources. Whilst communities share certain characteristics, it is clear the cumulative impact of these changes is spatial in nature, affecting different communities in different ways. Social isolation is a profoundly different experience if you live in a rural ham- let six miles from a shop or on the 11th floor of an urban tower block. In some areas home- ownership is a dream, in others a reality. It is of course a truism to say that different places will have different levels of crime, migration, educational attainment, unemployment, com- munity cohesion, aging. But all too often we see a national policy prescription failing to take account of this. 

Addressing these social and economic challenges requires a nuanced, locally appropriate approach, one that is grounded in an understanding of context and complexity. Who is best placed to do this in a particular place? I argue it is people themselves, for whom these challenges reflect their lived reality, and those we charge with the democratic mandate to do something about them. The core role for the local authority of the 2020s will be to understand and respond to the needs of its place and its citizens. To support this, we desperately need to imagine what a new, effective relationship between national and local public sector bodies and our communities could look like. Integral to this debate is the question of what should be the role of public services – at a national, regional and local level – in help- ing citizens and communities meet their needs. 

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