I met other council leaders from all over the country at the annual Local Government Association Conference in the first week of July to share ideas and discuss how best to face the pressure of rising demand for high quality services, but with limited and reducing resources.
I can safely say that no one has a ‘magic bullet’ to solve this thorny problem.
There was some help, however, from that political heavyweight Lord Michael Heseltine, who delivered one of his typical barnstorming speeches. It certainly inspired me, and in fact it was a piece of oratory that participants from all parties seemed to enjoy.
Instead of councils just waiting for the next directive from Whitehall, Lord Heseltine invited us to be bold leaders. Partnership, rather than devolution from government, will be at the heart of this new relationship. Above all, he challenged councils to use this opportunity to support economic growth rather than simply to call for more money.
This is an attractive proposition for Swindon because we are already one of the key economically productive towns in the country. In terms of the wealth we create, as measured by the Gross Value Added per worker, Swindon ranked 6th out of the 63 leading towns and cities in the UK in the most recent figures. Some people say that Swindon is not like other, older, more famous places. It’s true, because we are better than them. We out performed Oxford (9th), Bristol (14th), Southampton (16th), Gloucester (17th) and Plymouth (30th).
In addition, we already have a decade’s experience of partnership working. We were one of the first councils to use new legislation to pool our budget with the NHS to provide services. In 2011, we developed our One Swindon agreement that representatives from a range of public bodies signed in the Council Chamber after the strategy had received unanimous approval from Councillors. Through One Swindon we improved the way different public bodies cooperate to serve residents.
We are also about to sign a major partnership deal with a private developer to secure quality development on Wichelstowe of a further 4,000 homes, which will be a new model for private/public sector working.
In essence, Swindon is in a very good position to take up Lord Heseltine’s baton – in fact we’re already running with it. We will keep looking west and south to continue our work with the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Wiltshire Council. Alongside this, we will keep working on issues of common interest with those local authorities to the east in the Thames Valley where we can show how Swindon complements their successes, while helping to manage the ever-growing demands from London and the South East.