The image on the cover of this week’s print edition of LGC is intended to illustrate the deflation felt by many in response to the housing white paper, which had been talked up by ministers for months prior to its recent publication.
While there are some measures councils will welcome, such as an increase in planning fees and a move away from the fixation on starter homes, the white paper’s warm words on councils building homes ring fairly hollow without any of the additional freedoms required to make that a reality.
However, it is not just on housing that the government has delivered disappointment for local government in recent days.
Chief among the let-downs has been the final local government finance settlement which remains completely unchanged since the provisional settlement in December. This is despite fervent representations from across the sector and beyond on the need for truly new funding for social care, as opposed to some recycled new homes bonus and permission to tap up residents for more cash.
The final settlement also brought details of the six 100% business rates retention pilots set to go live in April, but again these failed to live up to early expectations. As LGC reported last year, many of these councils were hoping to trial freedoms over mandatory reliefs and council tax, while public health funding was widely expected to be rolled in. As it is, only Greater Manchester will get public health funding in 2017-18. The Est Midlands pilot does not roll in any additional funding so, for the first year at least, will function as little more than an accounting exercise.
Across the sector there is growing disillusionment with the potential of both devolution deals and the localisation of business rates to deliver the freedoms many feel are essential if councils are to continue delivering for their places and communities.
More details of how the national 100% business rates retention scheme could work hardly did anything to dispel this disenchantment when published by the Department for Communities & Local Government last week. The proposal to partially reset the system every five years and use transition funding to ease any cliff-edges raises the question of whether the new system will feel very different from the current one.
Elsewhere in LGC this week Clive Betts MP, chair of the Commons communities and local government committee, spells out his eight reservations about the Local Government Finance Bill which will pave the way for these reforms. However, he reveals he backed the bill in the Commons as he supported it in principle and it was a “small step in the right direction”.
As ever it seems progress is slow. The high hopes seem to have foundered due to a combination of their complexity and a cautious government, both of which mitigate against meaningful change. But in these straitened times we cannot afford to tinker around the edges. Councils have developed their appetite and ability to take calculated risks; central government must do the same. The bigger danger is more of the same.