30 years as a councillor

Cllr Martin Hill OBE, leader of Lincolnshire County Council has been a councillor since 1993. Here, he looks back over the last three decades.

Over the last 30 years, local government has seen some significant changes, and the pace of that transformation seems to have accelerated recently.
    
I was first elected to Lincolnshire County Council in 1993 and have been the councillor for Folkingham Rural ever since. That year also saw the introduction of the council tax, which replaced the short-lived community charge or poll tax. Over the years, the council tax has become an ever more important strand of funding for local authorities, particularly given the reduction in our central government grants in recent years.  
    
This was followed in the late 1990s by major reformation of the structure of local government, when a number of new unitary authorities were created.

Although Lincolnshire remained a two-tier system, in 1996, our neighbouring county Humberside was abolished, with new councils being created in North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. Then, in 1997, Rutland, to the south of Lincolnshire, also became a unitary authority, leaving Leicestershire.
    
In later years, our four authorities would work together closely as part of the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership, which was created in 2011, primarily to replace the regional development agency.

This new partnership gave our local area greater control of our economic future and enabled us to unlock millions of pounds of investment to drive growth in our area.

2008 financial crisis

In 2005, I became leader of the county council, and, as a result, I was responsible for steering the authority through perhaps the most turbulent period in local government history. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, it became clear that the public sector was going to have to tighten its belt to help the country balance the books. Local government was asked to find significant savings to help protect other areas, such as health and education, and, during the years that followed, we saw a substantial reduction in our government funding.

It soon became clear that business as usual would not be an option and that we were going to have to reassess our priorities and make major changes to our services.
    
As an authority, we’d always had a strong focus on delivering value for money, and we managed to make significant savings by finding more efficient ways of working, using new technologies to streamline our operations.

However, we still had to make some tough decisions about which services to protect and which to reduce or even stop completely. We began by carrying out an extensive consultation with our residents to identify their priorities.

The clear message was that our focus should be on protecting those life-or-death services, such as child protection, adult care, road maintenance and the fire service. Of course, this meant major changes had to be made to those that were seen as more ‘nice to do’. For example, we introduced a new-model library service, which saw enthusiastic community groups take on the running of many of our smaller sites. Not only did this bring millions of pounds in savings, but it also led to the opening of some new libraries, and, in some areas, brought together a range of community services under a single roof, making them easier to access.
    
Over the next few years, we reshaped our services, and, during this period, we had to take some very difficult and often unpopular decisions. However, the end result was a council that managed to achieve the difficult balance of delivering those vital services our residents relied on while also living within its reduced means.

Covid

Having successfully navigated this period, we soon faced a second major challenge – the pandemic. Like the rest of the country, local government saw significant disruption from covid, and at a time when our residents needed us most.

Within a matter of weeks, we had to adapt to new ways of working, with our staff working hard to find innovative ways of continuing to deliver vital services despite the extensive restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

During this time, councils played a vital role in their communities, particularly our public health teams, who were on hand to help the county navigate each new protective measure and deal with any outbreaks. Our staff spent a lot of time supporting local schools, who helped keep key workers on the frontlines by continuing to care for their children.
    
Many of the changes to working practices, such as increased use of online meetings and greater flexibility in working location, have remained in place following the pandemic, creating a more agile workforce.

In addition, we continue to live stream our public meetings and look at ways to further develop our online services, making the authority more responsive to our residents’ needs. These new technologies have also brought new savings, which have been particularly helpful during this period of rising costs, which have put new pressure on council budgets.

The future

Looking ahead, funding clearly remains a major issue for local government. Despite the financial challenges we’ve faced, including a low funding base, Lincolnshire County Council remains in a relatively stable position thanks to our careful management. However, like everyone else, we are not immune to the impact of inflation and rising energy costs.

In addition, it’s long been recognised that rural counties like Lincolnshire face particular challenges as a result of their sparsely spread and aging populations. So, we need to see progress from the government on the Fair Funding Review, the resetting of business rates, and plans for making adult care more sustainable. We will continue to push them on levelling the playing field.
    
One step in the right direction is the recently published devolution deal for Greater Lincolnshire, which is the next major change for local government in our area. This has seen our county offered extra powers and funding, which would place decisions about our economic future in local hands and give us a stronger voice in negotiations with government about investment and services in our area.

Initially, that will mean greater control over decisions relating to transport, skills and training, housing, economic growth, and the environment. However, this list of responsibilities is expected to grow as the deal matures. Devolution has been a long-term ambition for our council, and we are now consulting our residents on the proposals.
    
If my 30 years at the authority has taught me anything about local government, it is that new challenges will inevitably arise – but councils will be ready to meet them.

Event Diary

This year, Total Telecom’s Connected Britain is celebrating its 10th anniversary, marking a decade of networking, innovation, and collaboration. The conference is now the UK’s largest digital economy event, set to welcome over 7,500 delegates from the telecoms industry and beyond to discuss the hottest topics at ExCel London on September 11–12. 

DTX brings together creative minds and technology practitioners with the tools needed to drive change, enhance experiences and improve efficiencies across today’s organisations.

The countdown to the Environmental Services & Solutions Expo (ESS Expo) is on! As the UK’s largest environmental gathering, ESS Expo is set to take place on 11-12 September 2024 at the NEC, Birmingham.