They say a week is a long time in politics. Well twenty years in local government must constitute an epoch. From the Millennium Bug to Bird Flu, councils have had to deal with a myriad of threats to service delivery over the last two decades. As part of our ‘APSE at 20’ series, we will be asking key figures in the sector about their dramatic changes that have occurred over these transformative years and what potentially lies ahead. For this edition, we spoke to Heather Jameson, Editor at the MJ.
Twenty years ago, the Blair Government was two years into its first term, the Local Government Association was just a few months older and I started work at The MJ.
Hackney was imploding. Each week saw a new catastrophe at the London borough, from a Section 114 notice to government intervention. It was the Northamptonshire of its day, held up as a bastion of poor performance. It may not have been the only failing authority, but it was grabbing the headlines.
Then there was council tax. In 1999-2000, the average council tax increase hit 6.8% - luxurious by the meagre standards of recent years – and the government pledged to abolish ‘crude and universal’ capping.
By 2003-04, rises had hit a whopping 12.9% - topping an eye-watering 27% in Croydon – and so arrived the era of elegant and targeted capping. In the aftermath of the poll tax riots, which toppled a Prime Minister, no government wanted to risk the wrath of the public over tax for local services.
And then there was the Association of Direct Labour Organisations.
Twenty years ago, ADLO broke down, and APSE was born. All history is cyclical – or perhaps a pendulum which swings back and forth as each attempt to correct our failings creates another set of problems.
The priorities of 20 years ago were education, regeneration and tackling child poverty. Local government was shifting from Compulsory Competitive Tendering to Best Value and introducing large scale PFI projects.
We saw the rise of the Audit Commission and its focus on performance management; devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London; and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s attempts at kickstarting the regional agenda.
By the end of the Labour Government, we had Total Place and Troubled Families.
Now we have Northamptonshire. Local government is faced with rising social care costs and dwindling income – and attempts at selfsufficiency are increasingly under the spotlight. Business rates and council tax can’t rise fast enough to pay for adult social care.
Attempts to wipe out child poverty have been replaced with a raft of rising social issues – food banks, knife crime, and startling levels of in-work poverty.
Prescott’s regional agenda has morphed into combined authorities and Metro mayors in a mish-mashed patchwork of provision that has ground to a halt as the Government focuses on Brexit.
And the managerialism and performance management has been replaced by stronger politics – just as politics diverge into worrying extremes.
So where next?
Local government is shifting towards commercialism and prevention in a bid to resolve its financial woes – but there are growing calls for increased accountability. A decade after the Audit Commission was scrapped, there is a gap in the market.
Sharing budgets across public services in one place is also back on the agenda – and tax rises are looking increasingly like the only option to ease the fiscal squeeze.
Post Brexit there will be much to do. Westminster and Whitehall has lost credibility – and local politics will feel the fallout. Economic growth will be centre stage in the struggle to recoup the losses to GDP, putting places centre stage.
We have a choice between centralisation and localism, as powers are passed back from Brussels – will central government answer the backlash against remote democracy with further devolution deals?
And then there is cohesion. Patching up a country divided by Brexit, growing political extremism, race and religious tensions and extremes of wealth and poverty will require community building at an extraordinary level.
Brexit will fade, but we sit in the midst of a technical revolution that will change everything from the way we work to how long we live.
Local government will need to find new ways of supporting people, nurturing economies and building skills.
As people abandon our high streets and find everything online, holding communities together will be more important than ever.