The challenges mount

CHALLENGES MOUNT: It is time for a new settlement for Local Government in England.

THE COMPREHENSIVE Spending Review delivered a nasty surprise for Local Government.

The headline cut of a further 10 per cent in our funding hides a multitude of other changes which will see many councils across the UK unable to meet their statutory (legal) requirements.

And you don’t have to take my word for that.

The respected cross-party Local Government Association (LGA) has revised its (unpublished) list of Local Authorities under threat – which now stands at more than 50 across the country.

Speaking at the LGA conference in Manchester this week, Sir Merrick Cockell, the former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea, outlined in stark terms the cliff edge now facing local councils.

Perhaps as a member of the public you don’t fully see first-hand the range of services that are delivered by your local council – nor the legal responsibilities that we have to meet and maintain.

But increasingly a Central Government stranglehold is now constraining us to such an extent that local variation, even local decision-making, has been centralised.

We can’t even decide for ourselves, for example, if we want or need another secondary school.

Any random group can now apply to Government for council-owned land and buildings. This can put other regeneration plans at serious risk without any meaningful consultation, let alone allowing those of us who are elected by the public to make the decision.

We now also hear those small groups will be given the power to sell off public land that has been forced out of council (public) control for development.

Public services are under increasing scrutiny but a frank and honest debate about the true cost and value for money has not been forthcoming. Instead lazy production companies and their researchers will trawl councils with FOIs and detailed queries looking for any evidence of waste.

In any industry or service on such a scale you will always find examples of waste. But surely the answer is to deal with that isolated example, not to cast a shadow on the whole sector? 

The truth – as highlighted by review after review – is that Local Government (councils) is actually the most efficient arm of government.

But with the Government having already taken more than over 33 per cent in funding from councils this additional 10 per cent will be a step too far.

Even the most cynical observer surely wouldn’t believe that councils can take a 40 per cent-plus cut without that affecting the services people rely on.

And it’s time to say enough is enough.

We are sick and tired of being beaten up, lambasted and slurred by ministers who clearly have little idea what councils actually do.

Across all political parties councils are now standing up and demanding an adult conversation about the future of public services.

We are sick of the petty sound bites, token hand-outs before an election and the deep misunderstanding of the importance of local people being able to shape the services delivered to them through those people they directly elected.

The demand we are making is for is a new settlement.

It is not tenable for devolved areas such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be treated differently than England – we’ve had disproportionate cuts with no one fighting our corner.

It is also not tenable for other public agencies that are not democratically accountable spending many billions of pounds where the service users – you and I – are seen as the problem to be dealt with using an out of date ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

There IS waste in the system, duplication and poor service standards. 

Give councils control over the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, and see real savings (as opposed to cuts) with a better service for residents that delivers a welfare and benefits system which is fit for purpose and gets those people out of work back into the job market.

As it stands there are more than 900 apprenticeship providers operating in Greater Manchester and over 300 training providers – does that seem like a streamlined approach?

And what about health? Giving over control to GP’s with little reference to the wider social care system is bizarre. Surely we should be focusing on prevention?

I bet most people reading this will know the pay of your council’s Chief Executive and Council Leader, but you probably have no idea how much senior civil servants are paid – nor the people leading other public agencies, such as those in education and health. Whether you agree with the amounts being paid is another thing, but at least Local Government is transparent.

The way that local services are funded is also no longer fit for purpose. 

Council Tax is now based on property values from the 1990s and that means areas like Oldham with a low tax base (more low-value properties) have to charge higher Council Tax just to get level with more affluent areas of the UK.

Those are just some of the reasons why I fully endorse the ‘Rewiring public services’ report launched at the LGA conference. 

For the first time in ages there is now a coherent argument for a serious review of public services in this country and I’d urge you to watch a video clip which shows the funding black hole in stark reality here.

Please also take the time to read the full conference address here – it’s worth it. 

Demand is now outstripping the funds available. 

People are living longer but they also have more health and social care needs – and that costs serious money.

Our young population in Oldham is increasing in size, which is good news, but they also need educating well and deserve to grow up in good-quality housing and clean, safe neighbourhoods. 

And they deserve a better future than just ‘getting by’.

I’d simply say this to the public: If you value public services at all, it’s time to get behind the work of your local councils.

We might not be perfect but the alternative is having Whitehall civil servants swinging the axe with a distant minister doing little more than rubber stamping more and more cuts.

We need a new settlement and the time is now.

Thanks for listening, 

Jim

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