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MPs warned over 'patchy' Whitehall links

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LGA chief executive Carolyn Downs has warned MPs that a “parent-child” relationship between Whitehall and councils is hampering policy-making.

Ms Downs was questioned by MPs on the public administration committee on Wednesday. Asked how well the relationship between central and local government worked, she said it was “variable and patchy”.

She said the relationship worked “extremely well” on the troubled families programme, adding that the Department of Health had worked closely with local government in implementing the NHS reforms.

“Nevertheless, it’s definitely a child-parent relationship and the parent is the civil servant and the child is local government”, she said. “It makes policy all the poorer as a result.”

Ms Downs also expressed frustration about the difficulty of contacting senior Whitehall figures. “You have to deal with junior civil servants who lack considerable experience of what you’re dealing with on a day to day basis. That devalues the conversation”, she said.

Her concern was echoed by Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Lambeth LBC, who told MPs: “In earlier days, where there was an issue, you could go from local government almost straight through to a minister.

“Nowadays it would probably take six months to set up those conversations and there would be several imtermediaries telling you what was permissible and what was not”.

Asked how much contact he had with Whitehall officials, Mr Anderson said: “There is a lot but it’s mostly about issuing guidance. I look at it and decide whether it accords with the priorities that my local political masters have instructed me to pursue… It comes in the ether and I treat it in that way.”

Also at the hearing Ms Downs described a “very centralised localism” in which Whitehall gave councils “pretty strong prescription about how localism should be done”, citing as an example the setting of council tax levels.

She also warned that councils would not be able to cope with a repeat of the funding cuts that had been imposed over this Parliament.

“Councils will never overspend because they’re not allowed to, but it won’t be easy when there are service failures that come alongside that”, she said.

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