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Tony Travers: Delay protects ministers from awkward reality

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While short-term cash is repeatedly found, difficult decisions are put off again and again.

The year 2019 will be the year of a spending review, the ‘fair funding’ process and, just possibly, government proposals for the future of adult social care.

The spending review was announced by the chancellor last March, though it is still not known whether it will cover three years, four years, or possibly just one. Local government representatives make regular submissions to Whitehall about the plight of councils after eight years of austerity, but it is impossible to know if such concerns are being taken seriously by those undertaking the review.

The government is consulting on the outcome of a review of local authorities’ relative needs and resources and, separately, about business rates retention. It is hard to know where this redistributive process will end up. But it is near certain that the national baseline for any changes from 2020-21 will (at best) be the ‘spending power’ totals used in 2019-20. That is, from an expenditure point which is 30% lower in real terms than in 2009-10. Unless the spending review yields significant extra cash for councils, the fair funding reforms will simply rob Peter to pay Paul.

The publication of a green paper about adult social care has been delayed on a number of occasions. According to the Commons Library: “From an original publication date of ‘summer 2017’ and then to ‘the end of’ 2017, a revised timeframe of ‘before the summer [parliamentary] recess’ (i.e. 25 July 2018) was announced. In June 2018, the then health and social care secretary announced a further delay to the ‘autumn’ of 2018 following the announcement that a 10-year plan for the NHS would be developed; this was later tweaked to ‘before the end of the year’. It will now be published ‘at the first opportunity in 2019’ according to reported comments from the government.”

The government’s failure to determine proposals for the future of care for adults is instructive. Whenever there is an awkward policy issue to be confronted, delays occur. This is why Theresa May’s Brexit deal proposals were only published as recently as July 2018. There is still no definitive certainty about government plans for migration and trade after Brexit: in each case, delay temporarily protects ministers from the awkward reality of spelling out their policies.

It proved easy enough to announce an extra £20bn for the NHS. Indeed, dozens of announcements of extra cash for services and localities are made each year. Slabs of money can be found for popular causes or to suggest ministers are active. But the most difficult policy decisions are subject to delay and further delay. Non-domestic rates are in need of significant reform, while council tax operates on the basis of antique valuations. Whitehall appears frightened to modernise either.

Devolution has stalled. The policy of devolving power within England now has no champion within central government. In fairness, James Brokenshire has been one of the most effective ministers in the last couple of years and has a talent for effective communication that few of his Cabinet colleagues can match. But the government is so weighed down by more important things that it has little time for apparently mundane matters such as devolution and adult care.

The challenge facing Mr Brokenshire and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government is that the rest of government is overwhelmed by Brexit, the future of the economy, shoring up the NHS, the shrinkage of the armed forces and future trade relations. Libraries in Newcastle and children’s centres in Surrey will never get ministerial attention when the DUP or the health service have to be attended to.

Local government’s capacity to operate effectively for the years up to 2025 will be determined this year. It is to be hoped that ministers realise how important the provision of decent local services is for their own long-term survival.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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