The long view! Looking back at local government austerity from 2026 - did anything good come from austerity?
Time Passing and Running - Derrick Anderson
Time passing. So here I sit in 2026, staring at the past. The low points that made my bones ache were the demise of values-based, conviction politics; the media promotion of the politics of envy; the national obsession with ‘what’s in it for me?’
I was a council chief exec, and between 2010 and 2016 I’d laid off 2,000 staff and cut external contracts by £200 million. It was 2016-17 when the uncommitted reserves dried up and the flexible money ran out, but, mercifully, by then we had already completed a major transformation.
We’d anticipated the money running out and introduced a new approach we called ‘co-operative commissioning’. Our way was about people doing more for themselves and helping others in their community to do more. We moved away from direct provision and control. We enabled and encouraged people to get involved, to step up and do.
By 2018 most authorities had either thrown in the public sector towel by completely outsourcing their services and/or shutting down activities. Not us. We held tight. Time passed.
Time running. It ain’t all bad, though, and there were high points. I was the local authority representative on the bid team which won the 2026 World Cup for the UK. The tournament starts in a few months and I’m still dining out on that one. More seriously, in 2016 I was part of the National Commission that nailed the case for prevention and early intervention as the core discipline of children’s services. That features high on my ‘made a real difference there’ list.
In my authority, our new approach created a range of social enterprises – parks, libraries and youth services – run at arms’ length through local groups. All the council does now is maintain a core team of commissioning staff.
Funny thing is, that strategy, so radical in its day, became the ideological anchor for the party manifestos of all those vying for government in the 2020 UK elections. It feels like something useful came out of the period of austerity, but will it stick? Or will it disappear in time passing and running and running and passing*?
*Old Jamaican song lyric, Big Yute, Island Records 1974
Derrick Anderson CBE is the former Chief Executive of London Borough of Lambeth.