The dramatic reshaping of local councils and local services by the Conservative government was brought home to me when I shared a platform with Paul Blantern, chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council, at the Healthy Communities, Healthy Future conference in Kettering, organised by Voluntary Impact Northamptonshire.
Blantern began his speech with the statement "we are here to safeguard people and facilitate wellbeing - and that's all". For me, these words are disturbing in the way they limit the council's future role. Gone are the commitments to deliver high-quality public services, lead local economic development and ensure a thriving local voluntary sector, to mention just three things we used to expect of a good local council.
Blantern's minimalist approach comes against a background of the £200m cuts his council has endured since 2010, with a further £148m to be cut over the next three years. He said the council received a revenue support grant worth £400m in 2005; now it's just £12m. Staffing will also fall, from about 4,000 to just 150 this year, after it was decided to create mutuals to run various services. Blantern's focus is on preventive services, where he sees a big role for the voluntary sector.
The stresses produced by the depth of the cuts were very apparent at the conference. Penny Smith, Unison's assistant branch secretary, explained that the council had set up a Wellbeing Community Interest Company with the Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and will transfer most of its staff and services to it this winter. The council will be able to contract with the CIC outside European Union procurement regulations for up to three years, and in this time funding relationships with local voluntary organisations will probably continue. However, after three years the CIC will face competition from the likes of large services firms such as Serco and Capita. These prime contractors will have no interest in sustaining voluntary sector services and the recent history of subcontracting with them is troubled.
Jane Carr, chief executive of Voluntary Impact Northamptonshire, praised the council for its commitment to working with the voluntary sector, but said "the process of making this a reality is an uphill struggle. The goal of co-production is on the table, but the path to it is long and rocky."
Anjona Roy, chief executive of Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, challenged Blantern about the lack of black and ethnic minority representation on the seven health and wellbeing forums in the county. She also expressed her frustration to me. She said: "Given the significant diversity in the county and the costly processes required for resolving crises, wouldn't it be better to pre-empt these by having BME representation when strategies are being designed?" Roy went on to explain that black communities had not been engaged by the council, despite having raised serious concerns about female genital mutilation, child sexual exploitation and under-achievement in education.
As the council's resources shrink, its capacity to rise to challenges will be limited. It looks like the end of local government as a leadership body and place shaper.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser