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Devolution rises from the dead but fresh battles emerge

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) has a deserved reputation for ‘telling it like it is’. So his typically frank assessment this week of the government’s current thinking in relation to local government is probably a fairly reliable guide to the issues that will dominate the national political agenda between now and Christmas.

For the most part the government will be so consumed by Brexit councils will be left to get on with it, presenting an opportunity for them to be as “creative” as they like, Lord Porter said.

The main exception to this tunnel vision would be adult social care, where ministers realised action was urgent, he said. While Grenfell would continue to dominate for the Department for Communities & Local Government, with “more and more issues” emerging, reorganisation and 100% business rates retention would also be back on the agenda as would devolution.

Contrary to comments he made earlier this year, Lord Porter said the devolution agenda was no longer “dead in the water”. As LGC pointed out last week there have been some encouraging signs of interest from the top of government in recent weeks.

However, Lord Porter predicted any new deals on offer will not be as “ambitious” as existing ones. It is also clear that the government will have even less time for areas that cannot hold-up a united front in discussions.

The South Holland DC leader, who was speaking at the Association of Public Service Excellence’s annual conference, also revealed the LGA would be stepping up its campaigning on children’s social care in the coming months.

With 23% of councils now rated inadequate by Ofsted, a wider awareness of the challenges faced by children’s services cannot come too soon. Lord Porter also warned of a growing view among some Conservative MPs that councils were not capable of running children’s services and they should be transferred to “some sort of national body”.

Yet as Birmingham Children’s Trust’s new chief executive Andy Couldrick pointed out in an interview with LGC, no serious discussion about keeping children safe and well can afford to ignore “structural factors such as poverty and changes in access to welfare benefits”. Meanwhile, in its damming report into Croydon’s children’s services this week Ofsted acknowledged that increasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum seeking children were putting “formidable” pressure on the borough. Though its status as a “gateway” council means it has particular issues in this area, it is not the only council struggling with rising demand from this vulnerable group.

The LGA needs to make the point loudly and forcefully that changing how services are organised will not make the underlying issues driving increased demand go away. Hopefully the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the implementation of which is widely accepted to have wasted years that could have been better spent improving services for an ageing population, will serve as a salutary warning on this front.

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