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Over recent months Brexit has become the go-to scapegoat for any number of woes: from rising inflation to restaurant closures.
This week it emerged the final local government finance settlement has also fallen prey to the all-consuming beast that apparently now stalks every corner of the UK political landscape.
The final settlement, the details of which councils need in order to agree their 2017-18 budgets, is now due on 22 February. This is unprecedentedly late and less than six weeks before the start of the new financial year.
A number of sources have told LGC that Department for Communities & Local Government officials have blamed pressure on parliamentary time as a result of Brexit.
It is true that the Commons spent three days this week debating the bill which will pave the way for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and parliament is now in recess until 20 February. However, are we to believe that the final settlement is actually finalised and set to spend half term gathering dust on a civil servant’s desk?
The news this week that Surrey CC is to pilot 100% business rates retention from 2018-19, coming as it did after 48 hours of drama that appeared to be have been written by The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci, suggests otherwise.
In case you missed it, the plot went something like this: after Surrey leader David Hodge (Con) backed down on plans to impose a 15% council tax increase, assuring council colleagues the government now understood Surrey’s plight and would act on social care funding, there was speculation the government might be planning to provide some relief for the sector as a whole.
But the following day a leaked text exchange emerged between Cllr Hodge and a ‘Nick’ he thought worked at DCLG (probably communities secretary Sajid Javid’s special adviser Nick King) but actually turned out to be a Labour party insider (whose number was in Cllr Hodge’s phone as they are both involved in the Local Government Association).
This exchange, which included the phrase ‘the numbers you indicated are the numbers that I understand are acceptable for me to accept and call off the R…’, strongly suggested some sort of preferential deal had been agreed between Surrey and the government.
Mr Javid was then forced to deny any sweetheart deal but at the same time announced Surrey would become a 100% business rates retention pilot, the only area without a devolution deal to be granted permission to do so. Presumably the districts were kept completely in the loop about this development…
Meanwhile, the fact that the details of the other planned 100% business rates retention pilots, some of which were first announced in last March’s budget, have yet to be finalised also suggests there could be more than a few ‘t’s to cross and ‘i’s to dot on the final settlement.
There is no doubt Brexit has plunged parts of Whitehall into something close to chaos, but in the case of the settlement it may just have bought ministers some much-needed time.