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Giving local areas more control can help protect the Union

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The past few days have been interesting times for anyone involved in politics. One thing we have learned is that despite ever more sophisticated efforts to analyse and assess the intentions of voters, democracy still has the power to surprise.

What else do the results mean for us in local government?

First, it feels that this week we are living in a more polarised nation. The centre ground has faded and Ukip and the SNP have made significant gains in vote share and seats respectively.

After a fractious election campaign, David Cameron recognised this in his remarks in front of No 10, having seen the Queen. He emphasised the role of devolution for Wales and Scotland as a way to protect the United Kingdom.

I’m clear, as the leaders of the local government associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also been clear, that his government needs to do more than that. Councils are the common thread that runs through our nation, from Adur to Wyre Forest.

I am convinced that giving local areas meaningful power, and responsibility for the resources that go hand in hand with that power, can counter the increasing lure of nationalism. People should be able to feel control over their lives and have a say in the day-to-day services that they rely on. By boosting localism and local representation, we can undermine the appeal of retreating into more narrow nationalist positions.

This is one very powerful reason why we have been arguing the need to push power beyond Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont to the local areas that represent their residents but doing this will bring other benefits too, of particular importance to the new administration.

The government might be new but the issues it continues to face are all too familiar. Its continued goal of tackling the deficit is simply not something that it can deliver on alone.

Councils have already demonstrated that when faced with the challenge of reduced funding, we have been able to rise to that challenge by making efficiencies, sharing services and changing the way we do things.  But those efficiencies can only get us so far. Councils will not be able to continue to deliver current levels of service unless there is a fundamental change to the way we spend public money.

The government will need councils to continue to find innovative solutions and build on the work we have already done that has made us the most efficient part of the public sector. To do our part properly we need the right levers, devolving power further, greater pooling of public sector budgets and fair funding to ensure ever better value for that money as we keep providing vital services for our residents.

To ensure that the continued, strengthened recovery we all want to see reaches all corners of the country, again, local areas must have the flexibility to improve their local economies, for the wider benefit of the national one.

At the local level, the elections have largely mirrored the national result. We have seen a reduction in the areas of no overall control, a significant shift to the Conservatives and Ukip has won control of its first ever council.

The configurations may be new in some areas, but representatives up and down the land will continue to do their utmost to represent their residents, be that by building homes, creating growth and jobs, protecting our children or looking after the needs of the old and vulnerable in our society.

On the other hand, we will not be able to do this fundamental work without a firm commitment to the money needed allocated over a predictable, long-term period, so that councils can properly plan in a sensible way. Above all there is no area more desperately crying out for certainty than the creaking social care system upon which so many of our residents rely.

We continue to look for a commitment to put this system on a sustainable footing, thinking about social care as of the same fundamental importance as the NHS, indeed approaching them both as two sides of the same coin.

The government is new, but our determination to act on councils’ behalf is unchanged. We look forward to working closely with the new administration to keep making the case for local areas at the heart of Westminster.

David Sparks (Lab), chair, Local Government Association





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