First published in the MJ
Last week’s General Election, has left local government awaiting a vision for its’ future from a new Government with a majority of 80 seats. Will it be seen as a key partner working to develop a shared ambition of post-austerity policies designed to rebuild local areas and local communities? Or will it be seen as a merely a local administrator for matters decided within Westminster? We will hopefully see some answers when the Prime Minister outlines his programme for Government in the Queen’s speech.
First and foremost we need clarity on finance. Whilst the next few weeks should bring a later than usual financial settlement for 2020/2021 if the road to full localisation of local government budgets are blocked by too difficult an impasse, with further promises for significant reductions to business rates, then the previous direction of travel, which was unable to resolve the thorny issue of redistribution, could meet a dead-end. If this is the case would or should this signal a resurrection, at least in part of revenue support grant? Would this also help newly elected Conservative MP’s in former ‘red wall’ constituencies to demonstrate that there is no longer any scope for accusations of ‘gerrymandering’ settlements to the traditional blue areas? Enabling them to demonstrate that trust in the Conservatives has not been misplaced?
Whilst it’s not clear when a full budget is due, when it comes, it needs to invest in local government to undo the damage of the last ten years, the public expect to see a reversal of the deterioration of local neighbourhoods, town centres and public realm created by austerity. Pockets of funding have previously been announced around the likes of the town centres fund, where authorities engage in a bidding war for resources, moving forward there needs to be something more transformative than ad hoc competitions to underpin real change. Although it’s accepted that the underlying structural faults in local government finance will not be resolved overnight, there is much that could be done to immediately to ease the perilous state of local council finances.
The Conservative manifesto contains a number of promises on capital injections, from climate change to pot-holes, there are promises of new funds. Some, such as the £1 billion announced for social care should ease immediate revenue pressures. However, as APSE’s own research with NPI has consistently found, the real pressures in revenue terms are the very services that the public value on the doorstep; bins being emptied, recycling being collected, pot-holes being filled, street lights that work, decent local parks and clean streets. No amount of capital pots made in one-off announcements will stabilise these bread and butter local services.
The public will also expect a Government with a large majority to get on and deal with major public policy crises. These include the long-term resolution of how we deliver and fund social care, the provision of affordable housing, including a new build programme that recognises the value of council housing, not just ‘help to buy’ arrangements in one form or another, and how we use the power that local government can uniquely choreograph to tackle the climate and ecological crises we face, through both adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Whilst Brexit will continue to dominate the parliamentary timetable the public now expect long overdue action on domestic matters affecting everyday life. If this election was about an oven-ready deal to ‘get Brexit done’ we now need an oven-ready settlement for local government to start a programme for real change.
Paul O’Brien is Chief Executive of APSE