Our top columns of 2016
Decentralisation drama of the day: MPs warn government failure to define devo objectives risks ‘blame game’
Today’s top opinion: Vernon Bogdanor on closing the skills gap
Over the course of 2016 LGC’s opinion section has featured the movers and shakers within local government tackling a range of topics including devolution, economic growth, service reform, social care and children’s services.
A look at a selection of our best columns this year paints a picture of a sector in flux; a part of the public sector trying to find its place in relation to central government, the private sector and citizens.
Early on this year, Trafford MBC chief Theresa Grant wrote for LGC on her belief that the concept of the Northern Powerhouse (dubbed by Localis chief executive Liam Booth-Smith as ‘Osbornism’) revived the Victorian-era ambition to create a network of places, connected by satisfactory transport, that use their individual strengths to contribute to the national economy.
In a similar vein, Lewisham LBC chief executive Barry Quirk wrote for LGC in the summer on the four ways a council can help a city economy to thrive – in particular, Mr Quirk said a strong sense of identity and of what economic activity a place is good at were important.
There has been much debate over the course of the year about the ability of places, whether in the form of combined authorities or otherwise, to function better than they do, drive local economic growth and take charge of their own fates.
Coventry City Council chief executive and West Midlands Combined Authority interim chief Martin Reeves argued the funding system for local authorities must be revamped to incentivise “self-determination”. However, Sheffield City Region interim chief Dave Smith argued that business rate redistribution, currently the government’s preferred option for reforming council funding, will not offset the long-term risks facing the sector, and the RSA’s Matthew Taylor said it is time to rethink the concept of business rates altogether.
Devolution and, by extension, reorganisation was never far from LGC columnists’ thoughts. At the height of speculation about the May government’s appetite for devolution (or lack thereof), former Number 10 adviser Alex Morton wrote in his column for LGC a plea to central government to drop its focus on new configurations of local government and provide clarity on the direction of devolution.
Scandals in child protection and elections rocked the sector last year and columns from key people dealing with the aftermath provide an update on the state of play. One of Rotherham MBC’s commissioners, Mary Ney, has written extensively on the lessons from that authority on protecting young people from abuse; Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers has also provided regular updates on Birmingham’s improvement journey. The reappearance of former Haringey LBC children’s services director Sharon Shoesmith this year, with the launch of her book on the Baby P scandal, highlighted that although awareness of widespread child protection issues is better than it once was, blame culture is still a problem in public bodies. Meanwhile Tower Hamlets chief Will Tuckley wrote for LGC on improving the performance of a council reeling from a corruption scandal.
This year saw Philip Hammond make his first autumn statement and, in line with expectation, his speech to parliament was unspectacular. Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief Rob Whiteman wrote that his statement “lived up to… low expectations” on local government finance, not just in its lack of information on social care funding (of which more later) but in his moves on business rates relief.
A key unanswered question as we head into 2017 is how social care provision will be maintained. Our columnists called repeatedly during 2016 for a solution to the funding crisis. The local government finance settlement brought with it the government’s solution – a diversion of money from new homes bonus to social care, plus some extra flexibility around precepts – but columnists including the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’s Margaret Willcox and the King’s Fund’s Richard Humphries have already declared this insufficient. Next year the debate within LGC’s pages over social care’s future can only intensify.
All developments this year have been overshadowed by the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the myriad effects this may have. Stephen Hughes, then-interim head of resources at Brent LBC, was quick to sum up a now widely-held view on Brexit: that the vote to leave was a “cry of anguish” from people who felt marginalised by mainstream politics, and that the only way to engage these people in the political system was through devolution.