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It's Valentine's Day: we all love each other and we all love a big cake

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Commentary on appeals to avoid financial rows in local government

What better time is there than Valentine’s Day to demand a bit more love and a lot less conflict between councils?

LGC today published an interview with the Association of County Chief Executives’ new chair Debbie Ward in which she urged the sector to unite rather than bicker among its constituent parts about which type of council has been worst hit by austerity.

“This is not one tier of local government against another, that is yesterday’s discussion. It is about stepping out of that ‘who is worse hit?’ [mindset],” Ms Ward said.

“That divisiveness is secondary. The whole issue is there is not enough money. Our intention is to demonstrate that need for growing those resources again.”

Ms Ward is pretty well qualified to urge harmony, having been heavily involved in the planned restructuring of Dorset’s nine councils (including the two unitaries which were within the county’s historic boundaries) into two new unitaries. While it would be wrong to describe it as a love-in – Christchurch BC stands out by continuing to hold out against the plan – the restructuring has been a rare example of councils prioritising the health of local public services above their survival as organisations.

And she is not alone. A host of senior figures in and around the sector have recently urged an end to local government’s futile divisions in the interests of the common good.

Hampshire CC leader Roy Perry (Con) urged an end to councils stating that their position is worse than others, writing: “Let those of us in local government recognise we are all facing problems in grappling with incessant financial pressures especially for funding social care for adults and children.”

In another LGC interview, the former leading civil servant Dame Louise Casey warned the sector that it was not being taken seriously in Whitehall as a result of its lack of unity over key messages. “Can’t you just get your act together really because we kind of need you to?” she said.

And unity was a similar theme in the successful campaign of Hillingdon LBC’s deputy leader David Simmonds to become Local Government Association Conservative group leader last year.

In a message apparently aimed at different representative groups of councils within the LGA, Cllr Simmonds said: “If we’re going to run a successful campaign for a solution on adult social care funding we will have more success if we do that as a united local government than if we have dissenting voices who are not happy with one or another aspect of that.”

While few would disagree with these kind of sentiments, they can be hard to implement when many councils – of all types and political controls – are facing a fight for survival.

The government’s fair funding review probably presents the biggest barrier to inter-council harmony. This discusses how the cake should be divided up between councils; it does not discuss the size of the cake – an issue about which councils would surely be more united.

A consultation on the review lasts until 12 March. It is hard to see, for instance, how the really struggling metropolitan councils who have lost so much can give up more, even if the health of county councils provides even more cause for concern. Some districts may be relatively wealthy – but others are not, and the same is true of London boroughs. The District Councils’ Network and London Councils will fight for their memberships. Surely the apparently relatively robust health of the capital’s councils shown by analysis of council reserves by Pixel Financial Management for LGC last week is rather exaggerated by a small number of central London boroughs who are doing pretty nicely? The recent spate of districts merging, or seeking to merge, is a bold act to ensure their survival.

The prospects of the various representative groups in local government not falling out severely over the coming month appear to be pretty bleak, despite the appeals of the like of Ms Ward.

Leicestershire CC chief executive John Sinnott is one of the few to have offered a solution, urging the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy to take a leading role in suggesting a fair distribution.

In an LGC article he wrote: “The deepest well of knowledge of local government finance is within the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountability. Alongside that is an understanding of politics and the history, at least from Layfield to Lyons and since. The institute can also claim a degree of independence. It is a fair question as to who might request it, but a report from Cipfa analysing the current funding regime and recommending a way forward and what that would mean for local authorities and taxpayers could only be a valuable contribution to the debate and consultation.”

Cipfa’s chief executive Rob Whiteman described Mr Sinnott’s article as a “thought provoking piece for the sector and for Cipfa”.

On Twitter, Mr Whiteman added that “whilst @CIPFA is encouraging collaboration within the sector and will assist this, our long term policy remains that an independent body should be charged by @mhclg @hmtreasury re fair local government distribution.”

So, as with so many other issues, we are dependent on the government to provide the conditions that will to some extent prevent us from falling out. And, as Dame Louise notes, our falling out is making us appear impotent in the eyes of the government. It’s a vicious circle.

It’s fair to say that William Shakespeare was not considering the relative financial wellbeing of Stratford-on-Avon DC and Warwickshire CC when he wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth. But in the Bard’s county and elsewhere, local government needs to remember that its love of a big cake is more important than its dismay about how said cake is cut.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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