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Power struggles: the struggle for influence in shire England

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Commentary on this week’s County Councils Network conference

The momentous election result from across the Atlantic has overshadowed much of today’s UK news.

But in England, power struggles on a smaller than those involving the US Republicans and Democrats are rumbling on. Tensions were apparent at this week’s County Councils Network annual conference.

First, there’s the struggle for power between local and central government. LGC has reported extensively on councils’ difficulty in gauging the May administration’s appetite for decentralisation, which seems half-hearted compared with that of the last government.

Even when Theresa May confirmed devolution would continue in the same vein as before, her method of communication – a conference call with around 100 councilllors, rather than a public announcement – weakened that message. Since then there has been speculation that devolution to two-tier areas is now a lame duck – and perhaps even that it always had been.

The CCN conference provided more insight via communities secretary Sajid Javid’s first major speech to the sector. Mr Javid confirmed his “door is open” to two-tier devolution proposals but that directly elected mayors were still “a red line” for him.

And therein lies the rub – it is about who can or should be trusted with power. CCN chair Paul Carter (Con) asked Mr Javid how the government could entrust to county leaders the responsibility to solve a problem as intractable as health and social care integration but in the same breath declare those leaders unfit for the additional power that real devolution would confer on them.

The conference didn’t just highlight tension between central and local government. The dissonance between Whitehall departments was also evident when transport secretary Chris Grayling made his speech, in which he appeared to reveal more reservations about devolving transport powers than his Department for Communities & Local Government colleague.

The conference also revealed a power struggle of a more local nature. Several delegates used the conference to push for the reorganisation of two-tier areas into county-wide unitaries. Senior councillors including Oxfordshire CC leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) and Nottinghamshire CC Conservative group leader Kay Cutts accused district leaders of standing in the way of reorganisation.

Tensions between types of authorities were also evident from discussions over the future of local government funding. Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) told delegates the LGA would not advocate one system of funding over another in its evidence to the government’s Fair Funding Review, which will inform plans to move to 100% business rates retention. This, Lord Porter said, was because the LGA cannot recommend any system that penalises some councils and not others. Lord Porter said the LGA would instead argue for more investment in local government overall.

Meanwhile LGA chief executive Mark Lloyd told delegates the association has been lobbying the government to help councils to plug the social care funding gap by delivering some better care fund money earlier than planned and by increasing the precept councils can levy for social care. But the latter idea is not popular with all councils, as Mr Lloyd himself admitted. Warwickshire CC leader Izzi Seccombe (Con) said that in areas where council tax bands were low, increasing the social care precept amounted to “penalising poor people to pay for even poorer people”.

This morning as the unusually bitter US election campaign reached its conclusion, the president-elect Donald Trump called on his fellow Americans to “bind the wounds of division”. After six years of austerity and with more likely to come in the autumn statement, it remains to be seen whether local authorities and Westminster, and the tiers of local government, can do the same.

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