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Break old habits and show some vision – or face austerity far into the 2020s

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A guest briefing on changing attitudes to austerity from Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network

You don’t need to trawl the archives of The New York Times to know that a 2,500 word special on the Knowsley MBC wards of Prescot East and Prescot West is somewhat out of the ordinary. Sadly, the reason for this uncharacteristic interest from across the pond is far from positive. The paper chose Prescot to illustrate its wider contention that a decade of austerity has left Britain’s local services in deep trouble. As the article’s author puts it:

“A wave of austerity has yielded a country that has grown accustomed to living with less, even as many measures of social well-being — crime rates, opioid addiction, infant mortality, childhood poverty and homelessness — point to a deteriorating quality of life.”

None of this will come as news to those working in local government. Officers and members have long reaped the whirlwind of a decision taken by central government in 2010 to load the greatest burden of cuts onto councils and welfare recipients.

What The New York Times piece reflects, however, is a gradual but growing recognition amongst a wider group of policy-makers and opinion formers of the damage that decision has done to our local public realm.

The government may have, for example, done its utmost to spin the crisis in Northamptonshire but as more councils go public with their vast financial challenges, fewer and fewer people are swallowing the line that the troubles confronting local authorities are all their own making. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of the National Audit Office’s strongly worded report which put the blame for councils’ financial woes squarely on the shoulders of a short-sighted and complacent government.

So, this is an important and well-timed moment for local government. Important because, for the first time, political and media opinion is slowly starting to swing from the usual derision and neglect towards sympathy and concern. And well-timed because the government will shortly be launching its spending review.

A window is gradually opening for local government to make a powerful case for it to be given some significant relief after eight years of absorbing the removal of a third of its budget. That window, however, will slam shut if council representations to the government deteriorate into the usual squabbling between tiers, regions and political parties. Indeed, as one former senior Department for Communities & Local Government official commented on Twitter recently, that squabbling made it “trivially easy” for him to manage local government negotiators in the past.

In short, councils must take advantage of this moment by presenting a united front demanding a bigger slice of the overall public spending pie rather than fighting amongst themselves over the sliver on offer from the Treasury.

This will not be easy. Old habits are hard to break. It will take all the strategic vision and open-mindedness that is characteristic of the system leadership to which so many council chief executives and leaders now aspire. The unthinkable alternative will be to emerge from the other side of the spending review with extreme austerity stretching far into the 2020s.

Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network, @adamjlent

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