The prevailing issue that has exercised the minds of those in local government for the last decade has been dealing with the impact of austerity. Whilst rumours of its demise may be somewhat premature it is likely to be overtaken by something that may have an even more fundamentally profound impact on councils, dominating almost every decision they make over the next decade – that of climate change.
Whilst many councils are alert to this agenda, with dozens declaring climate change emergencies, particularly in response to high profile public protests by young people, it is easy to move the date you expect to be carbon neutral forwards by ten years or so, but unless you focus on deliverables then achieving such aspirations could prove to be difficult in practice. The clock is ticking. There is an urgent need to move beyond strategising and rhetoric to making significant progress.
For those MJ readers of a certain age they will no doubt remember the magical world of Mr Benn; as a spaceman, a zookeeper, a cook or a diver. The adventures were always captivating and of course he received his souvenir medal once he returned through the changing room at the fancy-dress shop where his adventures commenced from. Now you may of course be wondering what Mr Benn’s has to do with local government? Well the current crop of chief officers, those who report directly to chief executives, often find themselves in a Mr Benn like world.
Local government was once a place of Weberian style municipal discipline; clearly defined roles and with that silo working, along delineated professional functions. Planners did planning. Engineers did Highways. Mr Benn would have stayed bedecked in his bowler hat! Today’s local authority chief officers, not only look different from that bygone era but are increasingly working under different guises; changing costumes to suit the adventures of the day.
It’s time for an honest conversation about tax in the UK. Successive Governments have pledged not to increase the tax burden on the public in their manifestos and then once in power they put in place policies that do the opposite.
Just look at the shift that has taken place in tax revenues since austerity started. In 2010, local government’s core spending power of £50B was around 80% funded from local tax yield with a further 20% subsidy from direct taxation. Fast forward to 2019 and the £46B or so that local government will receive in core spending power in the coming year, is outstripped by the £52B that will be raised in local taxation. Local taxation is now clearly subsidising national spending.
Local people and local businesses are now paying significantly more in council tax and business rates for the services they receive at a time when many of the neighbourhood services, that determine the look and the feel of the place, are being decimated. Add to this the fact that fees and charges have also either been introduced or increased, in order to try and hold local services together and we really are testing people’s patience.
Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer and that definitely applies when it comes to all things Brexit. I was recently asked what I thought the impact of Brexit would be on local government frontline services and after a pause and a few caveats I was able to give an answer which sounded something akin to the famous Donald Rumsfeld response about ‘known knowns and unknown unknowns.’
We already know that the devaluation of the pound following the referendum has increased the cost of UK imports like construction materials for housing and highways, plant and equipment for fleet, refuse and grounds maintenance; food ingredients for school meals and even chemicals and cleaning supplies for janitorial responsibilities.
Reading the recent announcements from Public Health Minister, Steve Brine, about the new trailblazer programme to tackle childhood obesity I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is any joined up policy thinking taking place on domestic matters whilst the shadow of Brexit remains looming large over the country.
Whilst any new money is welcomed by local government, alongside the ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, a competition where local authorities can bid to be one of five winners who will receive £100k a year for three years to come up with innovative ideas around active lifestyles and healthy eating, isn’t going to push back the tide on the problem when a tsunami of cuts is coming in the other direction and overwhelming public health initiatives; closing parks; forcing greenspace sell offs; and causing significant reductions in accessible sports and leisure facilities.
Another week, another warning. If we don’t address the funding pressure building in the system around adults and childrens’ social care services then local governments ability to fulfil its more general responsibilities, to its communities, will implode.
So will Government address this impending catastrophe through new fiscal raising proposals in the imminent social care green paper or deal with it in next year’s comprehensive spending review? Or will we remain like mindless zombies on a relentless march to fulfil the predictions contained within various versions of the graph of doom? That money will run out for anything other than statutory services and even then such protection will be severely tested.
Many ingredients go into making a community a place where people are proud to live and work, so is there a danger of eroding local government’s ability to place-shape effectively as a result of a series of policy decisions and funding cuts?
Previous governments’ strategies for neighbourhood renewal seem a distant memory, alongside the levels of accessible funding that went alongside them. Whilst criticism existed of approaches being overly centralist, ‘funding with strings attached’, local government remains at the mercy of central government policy decisions and delivering budget cuts is the only thing in which it seems to have more freedom.
Recent events in Northamptonshire have hammered home the message that local government has reached a tipping point in terms of its finances. Anyone who thinks that the problems faced at the County Council are unique is in for a rude awakening. In this context is it time for a new municipalism?
With policy pressures piling up and budgets diminishing rapidly for many services it is time for local authorities to take back control of their areas by reclaiming entrepreneurship, rather than the outdated thinking that someone else should do this for them. This is not about acting commercially in the blind pursuit of income generation but to identify the major policy puzzles facing communities and thinking creatively and innovatively about how to solve these policy conundrums. Where markets have failed to deliver the outcomes that local communities need then it’s time for local councils to step up to the plate.
From the eighties up until the late-noughties a fairly stable orthodoxy existed amongst many senior policymakers that the transfer of large swathes of local government services to national outsourcing companies was a good thing, would bring much needed investment, transformation of approach and efficiency in delivery. Anyone who dared question the reality of what outcomes would actually be achieved was ostracised and branded as a dinosaur by the industry that built up around the sector.
In APSE, we always try to look for tangible evidence and think through the long-term outcomes in any suggested approach to delivering local government services and it’s therefore fair to say that we held a fairly healthy scepticism of much of the claims of risk transfer, widespread additional employment benefits and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. From around 2005 onwards we also started to see many contracts which harked back to the CCT days or which were early strategic partnerships start to run out of steam and councils start to insource them.
A recent APSE opinion poll, conducted by Survation, exploring public opinion on neighbourhood services, found that yet again, the public give parks the highest satisfaction ratings amongst all local government services, however we also know that parks are one of the hardest hit services as a result of austerity, with many facing an uncertain future.
Anyone who reads the local government sectoral journals is well versed in the graph of doom scenario and the squeeze it creates on non-statutory services. The £3B of cuts that have hit England’s neighbourhood services are playing out harshly on the average parks services and for the most deprived areas the impact of austerity is felt all the more harshly.