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Today at Solace: 'We're not victims, we can do something about this'

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LGC commentary on developments at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit.

The end of austerity is nigh, the prime minister declared the other week.

However, for those attending the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers annual summit in Brighton this week, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a let-up.

As Solace president Jo Miller put it in her valedictory speech yesterday: “It’s hard right now, I know it, you know it, we feel it. I don’t remember it being this difficult to be a public service leader.”

Councils are a shadow of the organisations they used to be, with far fewer staff and no longer attempting to fulfil some of the functions they did a few years ago. While services for those in the most acute need have often been conserved, discretionary services have been decimated.

And expectation is low that Theresa May is to be believed that the end of decline is in sight.

Asked about their expectations of the impact of next year’s spending review, a majority of those in the Solace audience this afternoon believed it would bring more of the same, with “a bit more cash to keep us quiet for a while”.

Even this fairly minimal hope was more optimistic than the finding of LGC’s Confidence Survey in which 42% of respondents went as far to say they believed their council could issue a section 114 notice within the next four years.

This afternoon the sector received a few indications about what could be in store from Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes.

She appeared to indicate the department was “up for that conversation” with regards the possibility of some of the constraints on raising council tax bills being lifted. “Can we lean on the local taxpayer rather than the national council taxpayer?” she appeared to indicate was a debate within Whitehall.

However, Ms Dawes dampened expectations councils could receive any of Ms May’s £20bn for the NHS: “I don’t think we can expect any of that money for social care,” the permanent secretary said. “We need money separately.”

She also sought to dampen expectations that Philip Hammond’s Budget in a fortnight will offer much for councils, stating: “The big decisions for local government will be next year.”

So while there is hope that some of the orthodoxies dating from the era of Osborne and Pickles may be eased, there’s hardly an overwhelming feeling in the sector that the good days are just around the corner.

Apart from in one respect.

The sector has just received its best news in years through the government’s lifting of the housing revenue account borrowing cap, which paves the way for them to build council homes in big numbers for the first time in three decades.

In a session on social housing this evening, the former Department for Communities & Local Government official Dame Louise Casey described this as “something huge, something incredibly important” and “something that if you get it right it could lift the whole sector”.

“Don’t screw it up,” she demanded, before dismissing concerns that councils lack the skills to make sense of their new role with a characteristically amusing: “Don’t piss on your chips before your chips are even hot.”

The role of housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire in bringing this sea change about was praised.

So the mood at this year’s Solace summit is complex.

The senior managers in attendance have received some of their best news in years but are somewhat jaded by austerity and wearied by the decline of the sector to which they have, in most cases, devoted their entire career.

There is little indication their resolution has diminished. If they’ve borne so much pain, it’s a fair bet that they are not a quitter.

As Birmingham City Council chief executive Dawn Baxendale put it in a conversation with LGC: “There’s no point being in victim mode - we have to and can do something about it. This conference shows that we’re not victims, there’s a lot of talent here.”

Nick Golding, editor

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