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Do events in Suffolk signal end of ‘big society’ local government reform?

Is it all over for local government reform? asks Patrick Butler in the Guardian’s Joe Public blog. He looks as what has been happening in Suffolk and other places and concludes with another question:

It’s a big issue for Labour politicians, too: will newly resurgent Labour-run councils, faced with some of the most drastic cuts, pursue municipal reform or retreat into their electoral comfort zone?

On Conservative Suffolk he writes:

Suffolk was a role model for its “big society” approach to service delivery.

But how can the government persuade council leaders and their employees that salvation lies this way? Local politicians and chief executives will look at the wreckage of Suffolk – and the careers of those dragged down with the ship – and wonder if it is worth the risk.

There will be forensic scrutiny of why the New Strategic Direction crashed so dismally: Suffolk’s arrogance; the poor communication; lack of trust; difficulty of pursuing organisational change while trying to deliver huge cuts and imposed with reckless speed by ministers.

And yet strip away the big society posturing, and at the heart of the direction was a belief not just that public services could and should be more efficient and responsive to local communities but that in the age of austerity, the council had a duty – an imperative even – to seek better ways of delivering them.

Having watched with care what has happened in Suffolk for a few months, my first reaction is that I am not sure the Conservatives here are as ready to abandon all their plans so completely as is being suggested.

Yes, they will talk more, listen more but still have cuts to make. I do believe that we may be able to find a constructive way out of the wreckage.

The biggest problem is that heavy funding cuts and reform of the way local services are delivered do not sit happily together. There are approaches which will deliver the same or better services at lower costs in the long term, but the transition does not come cheap.

People are happy to volunteer to improve services, but they are not happy to meet the redundant worker they have replaced in the shop or pub.

There is also a feeling that what Butler describes as the “nascent social enterprise movement” is an alternative bureaucracy in waiting. They talk in a jargon ridden language just like the people in council offices and that does not engender confidence.

If reform is to work it has to be rooted in genuine support from communities that feel the projects are their own. Finding a way through the cuts without devastating services is tough and it is going to require genuine co-operation not just from Joe Public but between politicians of of all colours. Are the politicians ready for that?

For all its faults the Suffolk experiment has parted the curtains to reveal that there is a possibility of doing things better. It has raised aspirations and made people think about ways in which they may be achieved, although the ways are often not those of the council cabinet.

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