Cllr Elizabeth Campbell is the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council
After yet another year of unknowns in the world of politics, we now have grown-ups back in charge at Number Ten. Rightly, local government is once again being asked to do more for less and it is a challenge we must accept. Many organisations will moan and grumble, and in some areas, they will no doubt have a case. But, in my view, now is the time to underline what can be done and demonstrate what Conservative values really are.
We have a duty to place the lowest possible tax burden on people that really need support and help, but maintain a high level of service – balance the books through a balancing act. Alongside this, and post-pandemic, we also have to look hard at place, creating and investing in public spaces, parks, markets, and bringing cities like London back up to where we were in 2012, riding on the crest of a wave with the Olympics. We have a coronation next year, and so we need to see this an opportunity to demonstrate what this country is all about.
Such a positive message is difficult to land when many people are struggling with bills, expenses, and the cost of living – but we have to offer positivity alongside the necessary support. We have to take pride in what our country is and what we can achieve, and underline the values we have.
But to get there, the Government has to take cities and places of opportunity seriously, with investment, devolution, and levelling up. There is an over-eagerness to ‘rebalance spending’ between north and south – which is far too simplistic. London has always offered more bang than the buck spent on it, and the entirety of the UK has always benefitted from having the capital as a recognised international economic powerhouse. With tourism, business and investment returning post-Covid-19, UK PLC cannot allow – or afford – London to be left behind, and local government needs to be given the tools and support to help ensure their locality is well placed to attract people, business, and investment.
Doing our bit means councils looking at our own finances with less pessimism – thinking how we can maximise what we do with what we have. It is not sufficient for us to make the same arguments that have been made for decades. Local government should be forever arguing for more freedom, not always arguing for more cash.
This means getting creative, thinking about income alongside spending, thinking about how we use levers to make a policy impact. Instead of telling people to go green or reduce emissions, penalise those that don’t want to go down that route, and bring in more income as a result. Adjust our carrots and sticks to not only make things happen, and nudge people, but also raise money to invest in what residents want to see on their doorsteps and what we need to do to bring in business, investment, and tourism.
Councils will have the ability to raise taxes to increased thresholds next spring, but this shouldn’t be considered an automatic move for all – we have the opportunity now to invest in technology that the private sector has been using for decades; it is cheaper than ever and has been tested with our populations already. From customer service platforms which make self-service easy and quick, to GPS managed street services which help to manage resources so they are in places where they are most needed at the right time. Using algorithms and predictive technology, our services can be more proactive than reactive, give a better service, and create savings to pass on to our customers and taxpayers.
We should look at 2023 as a year where we kick-start a new era of modernisation in local government, a new era of thinking about what is most important and what we can provide. A new era in which we understand what residents and businesses can do better themselves, and how we can facilitate and partner with them rather than just doing it ourselves.
The true focus and test for all of us is how we can coordinate, between national and local government, and the NHS, to improve education and vocational pathways, and double down on completely overhauling the social care system. This government needs to take on that challenge and bring local government with it; too many times this has been put on the backburner or filed in the ‘too difficult’ drawer. We must deliver real change and completely rethink the social care and health system as a whole. It has the potential to reduce the burden on our finances, the burden on families who bear the cost of care, and most importantly give people the certainty they deserve later in life – that the state will be there for people who need it.