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Running a council is beginning to resemble a tortuously long and tense game of Jenga – except the government takes all of the turns tugging out the blocks while councils are forced to watch the wobbling tower and bite their nails.
A look at each major government announcement from the past fortnight reveals a pattern in which the government pushes responsibility for delivering services on to councils without the requisite funding; pushing blame, rather than power, out from the centre.
The Local Government Finance Settlement, published late yesterday evening, delivered no additional money for social care in 2017-18, despite desperate calls for it. Communities secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that “more money [was] not the only answer”. Once more he emphasised the need for health and care services to integrate by 2020 to reduce costs, despite the National Audit Office having said this would be unlikely to work.
In fact, the King’s Fund today warned that sustainability and transformation plans, the latest policy designed to align health and care services, might fail without additional money, given the damage already done by cuts to social care and public health.
The pattern is repeated elsewhere. In the housing white paper, despite urging councils to build homes, the government expressed a desire to extend the right-to-buy to properties constructed by council-owned companies. LGC’s 2016 research revealed a large increase in the number of council-owned companies created to build homes without losing them through right-to-buy; the white paper suggests this is now in jeopardy.
That brings us neatly to homelessness. London Councils’ Dick Sorabji wrote that the Homelessness Reduction Bill intensifies the duty on councils to prevent homelessness, and proposes to provide £61m more funding in return. The catch is, Mr Sorajbi said, that London alone would need £77m per year to carry out this duty, let alone everywhere else.
The ending of the Dubs scheme for resettling unaccompanied child refugees after taking on just 350 children, rather than the 3,000 originally envisaged, is another case in point. Jasmin Ali, a senior adviser at The Adolescent and Children’s Trust, rejected the government’s claim that councils asked it to close the scheme. Ms Ali noted several councils volunteered to resettle children and some criticised the Home Office for not sending more than it did. But even so, Ms Ali says, it was difficult for councils to participate in the scheme because government funding for services for those children often fell woefully short.
Commons communities and local government committee chair Clive Betts (Lab) made the argument in his latest LGC column that, in a truly devolved system, councils would not just spend money granted by central government, but raise it themselves. If this were the case, reducing funding from the centre would be less problematic. This independence is the professed aim of the Local Government Finance Bill, which will make full business rates retention possible. But, as Mr Betts points out, the bill in its current form would not make revenue-raising power within a fair system of redistribution a reality.
Councils have ‘innovated’ their way through years of cuts but, as in that game of Jenga, there must come a point where there is so little foundation at the bottom that the tower must topple over.