In Whitehall, the temptation is to glide past local elections. But that would miss vital changes

It’s easy for civil servants to grossly underestimate the importance of the political and personal in the working lives of senior local government officers
Polling station sign

By Andrew Hudson

03 May 2022

With the focus on Ukraine and rising energy bills, most people – including many civil servants – won’t have paid much attention to the fact that we have local elections across Great Britain on 5 May, and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. For the national newspapers, these will be written up largely as an insight into how far Partygate is damaging Boris Johnson, and whether Keir Starmer is cutting through as Labour leader. Attention to any local issues will move on pretty swiftly.

For Whitehall, too, the temptation is to glide past this event. After all, most councils won’t change, and the officers are still in post. But that would miss vital changes for some.

It’s easy for civil servants to grossly underestimate the importance of the political and personal in the working lives of senior local government officers. Before I went to work in local government in 1999, I was in charge of the Health Team in the Treasury. We spent a fair bit of time with local government officers, and read the local government press – indeed it was building that understanding that prompted me to move, to Essex County Council. But I too had not fully grasped the nature of the interaction with local politicians.

As a civil servant, most of your contact is likely to be with chief executives and other chief officers such as the director of adult social services. They tend to be sitting on working groups, or hosting visits from Whitehall. And there certainly used to be more focus on how a new “chief” might be livening up a sleepy council than on politicial change. Where the officers were really dominant, the council – often smaller ones, it’s true – was known as “officer-led”! Of course some local political leaders had a very high profile, both locally and nationally, but they perhaps stood out because they were the exception.

That started to change in the late 1990s, as the Blair government implemented changes to the way local councils were run, replacing the old cross-party committee system with either an elected mayor, or a leader and cabinet. The latter remains most prevalent, and it deliberately puts more focus on political leadership, with individual cabinet members with a clearer and bigger role in decision making than the old committee chairs. Senior councillors rose to the challenge in many places, including in Essex: the Conservative group there had opposed the leader and cabinet model when in a minority in 1999, but when they won the 2001 elections, they took a very hands-on role in their new portfolios.

That trend has continued. There are more elected mayors, and more cabinet members who are full time in their roles, which wasn’t always the case, indeed would have been the exception 20 years ago. A younger generation of leading councillors looks to be more in this mode.

Changes in leadership will be taking place up and down the country next weekend. The outcome locally will reflect the sheer variety of local government. Some councils will remain effectively one-party states. At the other extreme, some councils are always finely balanced: a colleague of mine was chief executive at a big unitary where the majority was always down to the odd seat, and one-third of the councillors were up for election every year, so political control could tip very easily – and that’s before the impact of illness, death, and personal fall-outs in between elections. Officers in those councils need to be particularly skilful at navigating changing political waters.

Others may need to acquire those skills quickly, if the electorate decides on a change.

One thing that helps – and again something not always appreciated in Whitehall – is that local government officers constitutionally work for the council as a whole, rather than just for the leadership of the day. So as (effectively) director of finance at Essex, I would meet the opposition ahead of the budget-setting meetings, to explain the background and answer questions, though not of course to talk about the administration’s proposals. And that brings out that contact with the politicians is closer and more immediate than in Whitehall: they don’t on the whole have private offices as gatekeepers, so when we wanted to talk to them, we just rang them up, and they did the same. That can be great for both sides where the relationship works well. It can be career-changing if it doesn’t, in a way that is not unknown in Whitehall, but happens much less often.

Understanding of local government has improved in the civil service: at one point, if you said you were going to County Hall, some people would assume that was somewhere near County Mayo on the left hand side! But it’s important to be sensitive, this May, to the fact that working life for some colleagues in councils up and down the country will be very different, overnight, thanks to local democracy.

Andrew Hudson is a former chief executive of the Valuation Office Agency and director general of public services at HM Treasury. He currently chairs the Centre for Homelessness Impact

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