Voters will choose their MPs today.
At the time of writing, pollsters were predicting this to be one of the most uncertain elections for a generation with the BBC poll of polls putting the Conservatives at 34% and Labour at 33%.
While we don’t know yet who will form the next government, we do know for certain that the next five years will be a defining period for local government.
The past five years have been financially challenging. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, local government has seen an average cut in its funding of 20.4%. With a 46.3% cut, Westminster has experienced the biggest single reduction in spending power per head of the population in recent history.
All the main political parties have been keen to announce the ‘protection’ of spending in certain areas while committing overall to reducing the deficit and debt, albeit at significantly different rates. For unprotected departments, like local government, this means significant further reductions. By way of example, the IFS predicts that London boroughs face a cut to revenues per person of 6.3% this year.
Continued austerity and the impact this has on local government spending power have prompted some, like the New Local Government Network, to ask whether councils are at risk of becoming irrelevant. The challenge is certainly immense.
In London, when the consequences of spending reductions collide with London’s rapid population growth (there will be just over nine million people living in the capital by 2021), the impacts are likely to be dramatic. For example, by 2019 London is likely to need 133,000 additional school places and by 2031 there will have been a 145% increase in the number of Londoners over the age of 90.
The scale of this challenge is not for the faint hearted and there may be some who simply put it into the ‘too difficult’ box. Yet local government has an impressive history of local leadership and I firmly believe that the next five years must be used as an opportunity to reinstate the crucial civic leadership role of councils within their communities and across the places they govern and influence.
In Westminster we are taking on this challenge. Earlier this year our leader launched City for All, the council’s three-year plan to support a city that is confident, tolerant and where everybody shares in the benefits of economic success.
Central to achieving this vision is a new approach to working with partners across London as a whole. Residents, business amenity, public or private interests – we, along with our colleagues across the sector, need to be bold and imaginative in establishing new working relationships that look to the long term.
Through the West End Partnership we will shortly bring forward a 15-year plan to focus hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in the West End to secure the future of one of the most vibrant and exciting places in London for generations to come.
With our health partners we are establishing the Community Independence Service to provide tailored help to allow people to regain confidence, maintain their independence and stay where they most want to be – in their own homes.
With our central London partners we are testing a radical new approach to helping 4,000 of the long-term unemployed into work.
All of this is a precursor for a broader devolution deal for London, building on the work of the London Finance Commission and the recent announcements between the chancellor and the mayor of London at the launch of their economic plan for London in February. All these issues, from skills to housing, employment to business support, will require strong leadership from local government over the next five years; leadership that takes long-term decisions to help redefine the offer of local government to its place.
After the election and whatever the outcome, it is up to us whether we allow councils to become an irrelevance. I believe our leadership role alone should make local government a foundation stone for the UK’s economic and social success over the next five years but it is our responsibility to make this happen with pace and confidence, seeing the opportunities for the proverbial glass to be half full, not half empty, for the remainder of this decade and beyond.
Charlie Parker, chief executive, Westminster City Council