Councils have “shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden” on deficit reduction. We all know this is true, but it is significant that local government minister Rishi Sunak this week makes this admission in an LGC interview.
Mr Sunak pledges to be a “champion” for the sector in the forthcoming spending review negotiations with the Treasury, fighting for sufficient funds to enable councils to withstand “everything coming in their way over the next few years”. He also admits he will not “win every battle”, a caution justified by past experience of this government’s treatment of councils.
While the centre has often been protected, the diminution of government funding for councils and lack of new freedoms on the hoped-for scale has forced the local public sector to pare itself back. Statutory services are diminished, discretionary services are ravaged and preventative services – the investments that make life better for both individuals and the Treasury in the future – are subject to a cull that can be endorsed by no rational business case.
The time has come for a new course in central/local relations, one which requires each and every relevant minister to champion councils in Whitehall, in the way Mr Sunak pledges to do, and for councils to work together as never before to make a cohesive case for the value of local government.
From the central government perspective, Mr Sunak’s promise to bat for local government is a good start. Nevertheless, there was no obvious sense he is concerned that many councils are rapidly eating into their reserves, with him highlighting that council reserves are up overall, while he was insistent that no more Northamptonshire CC-style collapses are imminent. Others in the sector may beg to differ, thinking both the Treasury and Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government need to go further to acknowledge the scale of the crisis some councils are enduring. Sure, Northamptonshire CC made mistakes which meant it financially collapsed first but ministers need to admit that others are close to the edge, for reasons which are for the most parts not the result of the deficiency of the council.
On the local government side, the warnings of a series of commentators including ex-civil servant Dame Louise Casey, Dorset CC chief executive Debbie Ward and Local Government Association Conservative group leader David Simmonds that the sector must become more united and positive in its lobbying for the easing of austerity need to be heeded. Division and self-interest within the sector are allies of centralisers and will be seized upon by anyone in the Treasury seeking to avoid expenditure. Honesty, too, about the scale of the challenge and cross-party cooperation are also prerequisites.
However, the replacement of Sajid Javid with James Brokenshire as housing and communities secretary and the onset of a spending review offer opportunities to reset central/local relations on a fairer footing. It hasn’t just been local government that has shouldered the burden of austerity – it has been those who depend on its services. Their suffering cannot continue for another decade.