Nearly a year at the helm for Lewes District Council leader James Page

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Local government can reform our public services and public participation is an essential foundation of localism, says the Leader of Lewes District Council.

In an article for Guardian Professional this week, Cllr James Page said that when he first moved into local government he was sceptical that councils had the capability to be really innovative.

“Coming from a private sector background, I was labouring under the assumption that only the private sector could deliver efficient services,” he said. “But I have now come to appreciate that local government not only has the capability but also the capacity to reform our public services.

“It’s been almost a year since I became Leader. In that time we have managed to address some fundamental issues that face most local councils, such as local economic development.

“We’re working with the private sector to maximise the value of our assets – more than 40 sites – to generate economic growth and find a new income for the council. We are unlocking public assets for the benefit of the council, community and businesses.

“The council is constantly developing new ideas. The latest is setting up our own lettings agency, which would enable us to save landlords money and get people into decent housing more quickly.”

Cllr Page said he believes in giving council staff the freedom and flexibility to innovate. The way local government works needs to be transformed; to collaborate across councils, with private and third sector partners, and with citizens.

“At Lewes, we’ve taken the first step towards changing our public participation when the council’s cabinet signed up to the Democratic Society’s ‘principles of local participation’, he said. “These principles include our commitment to an openness and transparency that goes far beyond the usual consultation process – ‘here’s a 200-page PDF, now tell us what you think’.

“We’re looking to change attitudes across the council, so staff feel able to collaborate with anyone inside the authority or beyond to design, test and deliver better public services,” said Cllr Page.

“Participation of the public is an essential foundation for localism. Without good information about what people think and want we can’t provide the services they need. I don’t have a single big plan, but we want to experiment in communities on issues where there are good discussions to be had; try new approaches that are quicker, cheaper and more involving; measure success or failure quickly and easily.

“This work is essentially a series of start-ups, where the council can support a network that will then be sustained by the council and community working together.”