I recently visited Manchester and West Yorkshire, where, as well as visiting Lloyds Bank Foundation-funded charities, I joined a group of local authority leaders in Bradford City Hall. They had been brought together by Locality as part of the Keep It Local campaign, with the aim of understanding more about how they can work better with local charities.
A report from Centre for Cities was launched on the same day, highlighting the stark truth that governmental spending restraint has affected the poorest people and places hardest, especially in the north. Its findings echo our own report A Quiet Crisis, which shows how the cuts have hit preventive services worst. It also reveals one welcome finding: the extent to which even cash-challenged local authorities have tried to protect the most-deprived communities from the worst of the funding cuts.
My conversations in Bradford challenged me to think afresh about how much time national organisations such as the Lloyds Bank Foundation, and sector leaders in general, spend looking up to Westminster, rather than out to city and town halls.
The local authority leaders I met genuinely understand that the sector can play an important role in preventive services. For example, in Bradford the local authority and the clinical commissioning groups have built up a good working relationship with the Cellar Trust – one of our grantees – because they recognise that investment in community-based mental health services is the best way to get round expensive, out-of-city placements for people with acute mental health needs.
I left recalibrating where the sector should focus our attention. Westminster won’t stop worrying about Brexit anytime soon: the UK’s relationship with Europe will dominate years of policy, with all else sidelined. In major government departments, huge swathes of staff have been moved away from their policy areas to focus solely on Brexit. Yet there are still important national battles to fight, such as what happens to the Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace the European Social Fund and the Dormant Assets fund.
And as our parliamentary Neros fiddle while Rome burns, Bradford and its like burn with the injustices Theresa May committed to quench on the steps of Downing Street. Local authority leaders and tens of thousands of charities are beating back the flames or being engulfed. They share common cause in caring deeply about the people and places where they live and work. And unlike Whitehall departments, they are more likely to see services focused on people first, not departmental issue-based constructs. They can’t pause for breath while Westminster waits or they’ll suffocate. This is as true for Tory-controlled East Sussex, where I live, as it is for Labour-controlled Bradford.
Stop looking to Westminster. We need to find ways to unite with like-minded and enlightened local authorities to seek action to address the collateral damage delivered by austerity and the obsession with leaving Europe. It’s time we "looked local" and echoed and amplified the message from local charities and authorities about what is happening to the poorest people on the ground.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation