APSE's report ‘Homes for all: Ensuring councils can deliver the homes we need’, was launched last week at Parliament. It was a timely reminder of the role local government could play in tackling the housing crisis facing the UK.
Unfortunately the passing of the hugely controversial Housing and Planning Act the day before was a reminder that the current Government don’t see the direct involvement of councils as part of the long term solution. Their preference is clearly to pursue the notion of a home owning democracy, irrespective of whether the public want this or the housing market can deliver it. This approach ignores the many groups in society most in need of affordable homes and who are unlikely to ever be in a position to achieve home ownership or funds for a starter home.
It is easy to imagine the catastrophic impact of a collapsed social care system. Frail old people left alone; a vulnerable child left without vital support. It is these very real threats that have kept alive the debate on funding social care. However less than 5% of our local population will experience social care, compared to the vast majority of local residents that rely upon on our neighbourhood level ‘liveability’ services.
On a daily basis virtually all citizens will walk in a well-lit local street. Many will drive on local roads, take their children to play in a local park, or go for a swim in a council-run pool. Local businesses benefit from public realm within local high streets. Residents will experience refuse and recycling collections provided directly to their own homes.
The Housing and Planning Bill, winging its way through Parliament is proving less than popular, whilst a series of amendments attempt to temper the worst excesses, there is a fundamental flaw in the Bill and that is the very policy premise upon which it is based.
For a number of years successive governments have sort to rely upon market driven solutions to the housing crisis, wedded to the idea of a ‘home owning democracy’. In reality, we have many people on low and middle incomes who will never be able to afford their own home and have no real interest in doing so, yet we have failed to support an affordable rental sector.
With the spending review completed and the annual financial settlements for local government across the UK done and dusted, we now know where budgets broadly stand, between now and 2020 and it’s taking local government expenditure to its lowest percentage of GDP since 1948.
The move to four year budgets in England will see significant further pain, on top of that already experienced, over the next couple of years, before a stabilisation in the latter years of that settlement. This of course optimistically assumes that there will not be a further recession during this period, high levels of house building will be achieved and the move to localise business rates will run smoothly and fairly.
Debate has been raging in recent weeks about whether the public have begun to notice the impact of cuts to local government services, following a recent opinion poll which suggested they hadn’t, and the Prime Ministers own intervention in his own local council’s approach to budget constraints.
Much focus is placed on the big spending budgets of adult and children’s services, ones that the public are often not regularly engaged with, ironically the services that they experience on a daily basis, like parks, public realm, refuse and leisure services are being eroded significantly.
Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, is credited with the quote 'All politics is local' and I think that adage has never been more apt than at present.
Having spoken at and attended a number of packed fringes at all of the main party conferences recently I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that there is a reawakening by the political parties that many of the most pressing policy issues are best resolved at a local government level.
Collaboration, often translated as partnership working, has become in recent years one of the cornerstones of ‘good governance’. Better coordinating the engagement and participation of various actors and agents who operate in and around local governance has promised better designed services, ‘joined up’ provision and resource savings, but was this model of collaborative governance more fit for times of plenty than times of austerity?
In early July the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the initial findings of Roger Witcomb’s investigation into the UK energy markets. With the average UK household currently spending around £1,200 on energy each year, energy prices have turned up the heat on politicians.
The Witcomb findings suggest that we need to make the energy market work better for consumers. But do we really believe that after a 75% rise in electricity and 125% on gas prices over the past decade we can simply tweak the medicine of market regulation in order to make those markets work better? I would beg to differ.
In 1966, the TV drama Cathy Come Home was described as being like 'an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it' such were the hard-hitting messages of homelessness, poverty and despair. Sadly nearly 50 years later we are still plagued by housing shortages and homelessness. Cathy's despair didn't transfer into the political will to make homes for all a priority.
DCLG released quarterly figures on 21 May and yet again council house building is at the bottom of the pile with just 1,230 homes completed between April 2014 and March 2015 in England. Set these figures against the backdrop of some 1.7 M on council waiting lists in England, and it’s clear that housing remains an ongoing national crisis.
Looking to the future, one theory that increasingly catches my attention is that of ‘collaborative innovation'. It's part of the move away from the outdated concepts around new public management towards ideas around new public governance.
So what’s it all about? Whilst new public management focused on markets, competition and customers and obviously delivered benefits for some, it failed to deliver innovation for the public themselves. New public governance is more about actors across the public, private and third sectors coming together with service users, through partnerships and networks, to learn and contest each other’s thinking and generate new solutions to the challenges society faces.