What’s next for local government? A discussion with Barry Quirk

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What’s next for local government? A discussion with Barry Quirk

The challenges facing local government are formidable, yet councils across the country are brimming with creativity and resilience as they engage with communities to find solutions. At 31ten, we are talking to councils nationwide to explore what the future holds and the implications for the next government.  Ameeta Rowland, one of our associate consultants leading these discussions, spoke to Barry Quirk about the road ahead.

Barry has served two-thirds of his 45-year local government career as chief executive at the London Borough of Lewisham (1993-2017) and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (2017 to 2022). Few other figures in the sector share his experience. With a PhD in social and political geography and a strong managerial record, Barry is an expert on the challenges facing local government both now and in the future.


Barry, you’ve had an extensive career in local government. Where do you feel local government will be towards the end of this year, and what’s your view on the challenges and risks?

It’s important to start with the existing pattern of local government if we are to properly frame the challenges it faces. There are 317 councils in England, which deliver around 100 public service functions each and 11 combined authorities. And we need to remember that around half of the counties are now unitaries.

When we talk about what local governments can do differently and how they can tackle challenges, the specifics of each place and its connections to other places really matter. As does the tendency of all organisations to stick to established ways of doing things: situational specificity and path dependency is all.

Councils are rooted in place, and they are essential to the democratic and civic life of their communities. For every council there is a choice in how it does things; the actions of local government are tailored to the unique circumstances and needs of their community. But there’s also an element of path dependency where decisions and outcomes in the present are heavily influenced by historic investment and existing institutional frameworks. As a result, many councils feel that they are locked into ways of doing things.  They may have very long contracts in place – 25-year waste contracts for example. And it could be that many supply markets operate across a much larger footprint than that of an individual local authority – for example, the adult social care sector.

You mention historical decisions, what do you think are the time horizons for the challenges ahead?

There are four horizons in my mind:

  • It is now 6 weeks to the next general election and whatever the government, there will continue to be funding restraints. £20bn of savings are pencilled into existing government budgets for non-protected departments, the biggest of which is local government.
  • A small number of councils (19) are unable to balance their books, but within the next 12 months, several others are likely to face a financial cliff edge. Estimates from council auditors suggest that up to 40% of England’s councils are at risk of financial failure in the next five years.
  • It is 60 months to 2030, by this point, or earlier, a new funding settlement for local government should be in place alongside a new perspective on public services, one that is kinder, responds to place and is less homogenous.
  • And that’s all necessary because it’s just 300 months to 2050, when there is likely to be an ever-deepening ecological and energy crisis; techno-ubiquity and a huge increase in global populations in places like sub-Saharan Africa, which will produce demands and have an impact on global migration; hopefully this dampens religious and cultural divides in Europe rather than exacerbating them.

Thinking about those horizons and challenges, what do you think the priorities should be for the next government and local government?

Priorities fall into two areas; one is around policy for capital spending and the other is around policy in relation to revenue spend. On capital:

  • Capital has got to go into decarbonisation and housing.  For me, these don’t make sense to do at a borough or council level. Does it make sense for every council to have their own expertise? Take housing – social housing providers have far more stock and expertise than councils, so why not partner with them or at least work together across councils to deliver Net Zero and housing. 100,000 people across England are in temporary accommodation and 60,000 of them are in London. London has 16% of England’s people but 60% of its acute homelessness.  National plans need to be devolved to regions or sub-regions. Housing is a huge constraint in London, but also in other areas too. There needs to be a regional approach to house building, not just in London but nationwide. That needs to be tied to the infrastructure to support people. Another problem is that the recent spending review pencilled in an £18bn reduction in capital spend, simply to balance Treasury accounting.
  • Councils’ capital programmes need to adapt to societal challenges, for example, the impact of increased migration. According to ONS, the UK population is set to reach 70 million a decade sooner than originally forecast.  And 90% of that increase is expected to be driven by net international migration. Alongside, there are the impacts of an ageing population, the country will need a lot more care homes, and very little local authority capital spend is allocated to social care.

In terms of revenue spend there are several areas that will likely need attention from the next government:

  • There are deep challenges in Housing Revenue Accounts across the country – if councils just build more at pace, they will have much more debt to pool across their stock. This may prove problematic under current arrangements.
  • Demand for services is growing and fluid, but the supply of services is constrained. Services need to change to meet demand but also they need continually to reduce costs. That’s why councils need to look at both continuous improvement and transformation.
  • Workforce pay and conditions, particularly in adult social care, need to be addressed and councils need to jointly plan with health partners recruitment and development among the health and social care workforce. Healthcare integration at local and sub-regional levels isn’t as effective as it could be.
  • Community safety and policing is another area that requires partnership working and engagement with communities.

What are the constraints in tackling these priorities?

First, finance.  Over the past decade, councils have gained considerable experience transforming their organisations, redesigning their services, and dramatically reducing their costs. But there’s a question as to whether more of this can be done within their current structures, or whether future demands will soon require further re-structuring. Some councils have plenty of reserves, usually buoyed by a decade of new homes bonus and the like. But many are struggling.

Second, staffing.  Staffing may be the biggest constraint for local authorities. There is already a shortage of skills and capabilities in the sector and a growing requirement for a more flexible workforce alongside a continuing need for specialist skills, like planners, digital experts and social workers. But too few young workers are entering local government. The staffing challenges, as well as the financial constraints, mean that some functions ought to be upscaled to regional and sub-regional partnerships, and some should be downscaled to the community level.

Perhaps more needs to be made about councils’ role in ‘doing good’ for the public to appeal to the younger generation. With that in mind, what do you think will help drive change?

It’s worth considering whether we are truly entering a period marked by increased concerns over social responsibility and justice.  Public sentiment appears to be changing across different regions and sectors. Perhaps a marketing focus for new staff about “making life better in your local area by working for your socially responsible council” is one way forward.  But it has to be real and not just fine words. However, I believe that translating this into widespread practice is possible. How communities are engaged in tackling challenges is an essential part of local government.

You’ve talked about the need to enhance citizen engagement in decision-making, what does that look like?

There has undoubtedly been a worldwide trend towards populism. Existing political leaders in all mainstream parties being described as representing the socially and educationally elite.  Populist political actors now have the tools to campaign directly to the public.  Perhaps there’s too much attention paid to what happened in the USA with Trump in 2016.  In terms of political culture and party organisation, the American tradition is very atypical internationally.  I suspect that if we followed French politics more closely we would be examining how Macron established his party in April 2016 and was President within 13 months.  Historically low support for France’s two main parties, the Socialists and Gaullists, appears to have opened the door for Macron’s centrist anti-establishment message. But he got re-elected five years later.

There’s no question that mainstream representative politics faces a very serious challenge.  People are extremely keen on democracy but are less enamoured of established political processes.  We need democratic innovation, not just service innovation. All types of deliberative and associative styles of democracy should be experimented with at the local level.  This will bring citizens into the democratic process through deliberation, and civil society into the domain of local politics and power through associative approaches.

Do you have any final reflections?

Transformational change in organisations and services only happens when councils work creatively with others, with their communities and their partners for the benefit of the public they serve.


At 31ten, we work with councils to enable big picture thinking and deliver transformational change. If you’d like to speak to us about this work or want to plan for the future, please feel free to reach out to Rahul Rana on rahul.rana@31tenconsulting.co.uk.  We will be publishing a full report on our findings on what’s next for local government in Summer 2024.