Cllr Jacqui Burnett, APSE’s newly elected National Chair for 2023-2024, sets out her vision for APSE in her term of office
Colleagues, I am absolutely honoured to be entrusted by you to be the APSE National Chair for this coming year. I have been involved with APSE on many levels over many years. It is an organisation that is very close to my heart.
Before I set out my own vision for the coming year, I must, however, pay tribute to my predecessor Alderman Beth Adger MBE. Beth leaves her term of office having overseen some big changes in APSE, with the appointment of a new Chief Executive, a new establishment structure and the development of APSE’s first ever ESG strategy that will remain at the heart of our approach for many years to come. So, thank you Beth and thank you also to Ellen Cavanagh - our National Secretary for the past year - for her wisdom and support to this great organisation. I also want to say thank you to Colin Rowland for agreeing to act as my National Secretary.
My colleagues at APSE reflect the values that I hold, those being a strong public service ethos which always strives for excellence, and a belief that public services should be equitable and accessible for everyone in our communities.
I want to take this opportunity to set out my vision for the coming year, and my personal commitments to drive APSE forward, on behalf of our member councils across the UK. The work of local councils is so critical to the lives of our residents and communities. However, this is rarely acknowledged beyond those within our sector. In recent years we have become use to the language of levelling up. But levelling up will not happen if we fail to address the abject poverty that some in our communities’ face. Inadequate funding means that local services will not be able to address the basic needs of those that use them.
I am sure that every councillor reading this, regardless of your political persuasion, will understand that when we are out campaigning, the questions on the doorstep are not about how local government finance works, but about bins, potholes, fly-tipping and street cleaning. The public rarely see the connection between our funding and what happens on the ground when they open their front door. This needs to change.
As an organisation dedicated to the frontline, I want my term of office to mark a campaigning year in which we can make the connection between the money that local councils need and what happens to those potholes, bin collections, parks and leisure centres. Because these services matter.
I am old enough to remember the days of municipal pride, when councils were proud to invest in local community assets. It was not a matter of weighing up every pound in terms of the building costs but looking at the community benefits that such investments brought about. Take the example of leisure centres. Of course, they are the places where you can learn to swim, play badminton or workout in a gym, and hopefully at a cost that is affordable.
But let’s go beyond that.
They are places for communities to come together; to connect, to socialise, and to break down barriers. They are also part of the lexicon of ill-health prevention. Whilst we pump money into treating ill-health through the NHS, too little thought is given to the value and purpose of community level prevention services. Cutting funding to these community assets is short-termism and simply wrong. The combination of austerity and the Covid-19 pandemic has led some councils to be cautious, to sell off assets and put off or deny new investment.
I disagree with this.
Firstly, we must refocus our energy on frontline services. It is APSE’s USP. It is as relevant to our member councils today as it was in our very early years. Local government finance has hollowed out many of these valuable services, which sadly lack resilience. I want the APSE secretariat to redouble its efforts on research, briefings and support to our frontline services across all areas, from waste, parks, school meals, highways, transport and leisure. They all matter.
Secondly, I want to ensure that our approach to campaigning on local government finance tells some home truths. The way in which we fund our local councils is unfair, unjust and in need of reform. If needs-based budgeting is good enough for the NHS, then why not us? We should never accept that our services fall below acceptable levels, we need funding that guarantees a basic level of service wherever you are in the UK.
Thirdly, following on from the issue of finance, we know that in recent years, central governments across the UK have tried to face both ways on commercialisation. On the one hand pulling back from proper funding of local councils, and on the other changing direction on commercialisation, suggesting that councils should withdraw. We can still have sensible and measured approaches to investments, trading and charging in local government services. It is something that has always been there, and if such approaches help in the regeneration of our town centres and high streets, we need to grasp the opportunities, because there are few alternatives left if councils themselves step away.
Finally, I want to see an ambitious approach to investing in legacy assets so that we can secure them for future generations. Of course, the obvious asset class is more social housing. Without decent, affordable homes we are letting down generations to come. But beyond that, are our community centres, leisure centres, and our transport hubs. These are all assets that will support local people and local communities. They will assist in health and wellbeing, in the social fabric of our local areas and in economic development.
I want my term of office to be recognised as one which places municipal assets and municipal pride at the heart of our approach to supporting future generations. Because if we don’t do this as local councils then who will?