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Local government through the looking glass

Dan Drillsma-Milgrom
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In his assessment of the government’s progress on decentralisation, which finally came to light this week, cities minister Greg Clark gave his former colleagues at the Department for Communities & Local Government a generous ‘four stars out of five’ rating.

In his assessment of the government’s progress on decentralisation, which finally came to light this week, cities minister Greg Clark gave his former colleagues at the Department for Communities & Local Government a generous ‘four stars out of five’ rating.

This week, officials in the same department appear to have kicked around plans to issue emergency legislation that would effectively force councils to freeze council tax levels next year.

Just let those two sentences stand next to each other for a while and revel in the Lewis Carroll-like world that those running central government policy on councils seem to be occupying.

Mr Clark begins his assessment of DCLG by stating that the department “has lead responsibility for decentralisation, so achieving anything less than a [four star] rating would be unacceptable”. It is unclear if this statement is context to or justification for the department indeed being given such a score - if anything less than four stars is unacceptable then four stars it had better have.

And a good thing too. Because it is hard to imagine that it would be possible for a department to be described as having an “ambitious decentralisation programme under way” when officials are capable of countenancing the prospect of removing locally elected politicians’ ability to make any judgment on what level council tax should be set at to fund local services.

It is two months since the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy said it was “worrying that we seem to be drifting to a position in which the council tax is effectively determined by central rather than local government”. Perhaps the department thought it was the ‘drifting’ part that was worrying. It certainly seems to have considered charging full steam ahead to such a position.

Of course, in real life, such policies throw up problems that are stark and simple for those on the ground. Councils need to know their funding situation in good time to plan their budgets for 2013-14. That the settlement was not due to be published until late December has already left them with too little time. The consequences of it being pushed back to after Christmas do not bear thinking about.

Sadly, another area where the facts seem equally stark and simple relates to council-provided services’ status as the first in line to bear the brunt of the government’s austerity agenda.

Last week we predicted that the Audit Commission’s report on levels of council reserves would hand ministers all the excuses they needed to hand councils disproportionately large cuts.

Sure enough, George Osborne has dismissed the argument that the next spending review could not disfavour local government to the extent that the current one has.

Treasury officials have confirmed the language in the Autumn Statement means local government departmental expenditure limits will start the next period on their current trajectory.

Whether or not councils get their financial allocations in time for Christmas, the long-term outlook looks increasingly bleak.

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