”Oh Lord, give me localism, but not yet,” as St Augustine didn’t say. Eric Pickles could have done though, so could Nick Boles, Michael Gove and a host of other ministers.
More from: Review of the Year 2012
Despite the government’s localist rhetoric, the temptation for ministerial meddling in local government proved as strong as ever in 2012.
Whether it was restoration of weekly bin collections, householders extending conservatories, council tax rises, or who public health directors report to, Whitehall was never far away from town hall in 2012.
Communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles obviously found no cheap headlines in his Christmas stocking so chose 29 December to claim councils were sitting on £10.8bn of reserves and therefore possessed “a financial cushion to meet sudden unexpected costs”.
Thus January opened with Local Government Association financial adviser Paul Woods calling this press salvo “highly misleading” and “significantly overstat[ing] the real level of ‘available’ cash resource”.
Matters did not improve when councils digested Mr Pickles’ festive season announcement that the Treasury would keep a substantial part of local business rate income.
Four pilots were launched for community budgets in Greater Manchester, Cheshire West and Chester, Essex and the Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster ‘tri-borough’ area. Mentions of similarities with the old Total Place scheme were discouraged.
The LGA endorsed the government’s idea that public health directors must report to council chief executives, a compromise it said was the best on offer.
Councils got £2.2bn for their new public health responsibilities, slightly more than expected.
Sector-led improvement faced an early test when a startling report found unlawful charging of vulnerable adults and persecution of whistleblowers at Wirral, with the LGA setting up an improvement board.
Nottinghamshire CC was the largest of a pioneering handful of councils to use the Localism Act to restore the committee system. Leader Kay Cutts (Con) said backbenchers found it “galling to be excluded from decision making” under the cabinet.
A technicality meant councils levied by transport and waste bodies might have to hold a council tax referendum even on increases below the 3.5% threshold. As with the Schleswig-Holstein question, three people understood why - one died, one went mad and the third didn’t work in DCLG.
Leicestershire CC leader David Parsons (Con), narrowly defeated in 2011 for LGA chair, was referred to the county’s standards committee over expenses issues, starting a saga that would see him ousted.
IT suppliers warned they could not adapt systems to cope with the 2013 localisation agenda, and the LGA said it would “go nuclear” over limits on local changes to benefits. Small explosion, few hurt.
The only example of a chief executive shared by a county and district ended with Essex CC’s Joanna Killian giving up her Brentwood BC role and taking a voluntary pay cut of £15,000. She later became chair of Solace.
South West One - the shared services body set up to go “beyond excellence” - recorded a £30m loss. It later took legal action against Somerset CC, one of its owners.
Woof! It was dog’s breakfast time as the LGA proved unable to agree on guidance to replace the Councillors’ Code of Conduct and issued two versions. It eventually settled on one, at which point DCLG issued another. Confused?
Freezes thawed. Despite a third year of pay freeze, 40% of councils budgeted for an increase, and 10% of them rejected the government’s offer of grant in return for a council tax freeze.
Ofsted introduced adoption service ‘scorecards’ and warned that only councils that placed all children within a year would gain ‘outstanding’ status.
Plans for staff-owned mutual DA Partnerships, led by former Audit Commission head of audit Gareth Davies, to take over the district audit service collapsed after it won only one of 10 outsourcing contracts let by the dying Audit Commission.
A bizarre dispute saw Hambleton DC send chief executive Peter Simpson on gardening leave, following an LGA peer review report, without telling Richmondshire DC, of which he was also chief. He eventually left and Hambleton became the only council to refuse to publish its report.
There was some localism with agreement of the first city deal, in Greater Manchester, where councils will share increased income tax resulting from their investment in economic growth.
But there was centralism when right-to-buy was ‘rebooted’ by housing minister Grant Shapps with larger discounts for purchasers set nationally. He said each house sold would be replaced. This turned out to mean at national, not local, level.
In a twist worthy of science fiction, Cardiff City Council was ordered to disclose its correspondence with Dr Who, which is filmed in the city.
Liverpool City Council used a loophole to establish an elected mayoralty without a referendum, and prime minister David Cameron promised to convene a ‘cabinet’ of elected mayors after May’s referendums on their creation. He would have a select attendance.
Southend-on-Sea BC won LGC’s Council of the Year award, with Oldham MBC taking the ‘most improved’ title.
Protests saw a requirement to answer ‘yes’ to most development proposals removed from the National Planning Policy Framework. This was supposed to let localism flourish, but four months later ministers were interfering with local planning again.
Nottingham City Council launched a workplace parking levy, under a 12-year-old power so hard to use that nowhere else had.
Jeff Green (Con), briefly leader of Wirral, claimed a “mystical group of officers” denied him access to vital papers on its multiple scandals.
Kent CC leader Paul Carter (Con) said good staff made a chief executive unnecessary after it went ‘chiefless’ following Katherine Kerswell’s departure with a payoff eventually disclosed at £420,000.
The local government wage bill fell by £1.4bn in one year through cuts, freeze and changes.
The LGA launched a cross-party campaign to implement the Dilnot report’s reforms of financing social care. Ministers remained evasive.
Voters said ‘no’ to elected mayors in all 10 cities polled except Bristol. Doncaster MBC’s controversial mayoralty survived a referendum but in November that of Hartlepool BC didn’t.
Labour gained more than 800 council seats and control of 30 authorities, although Conservative Boris Johnson retained the London mayoralty.
In Scotland the SNP advanced and took two councils, but Labour won back many Welsh seats previously lost to Plaid Cymru and Independents.
Local government minister Andrew Stunell drew incredulity by claiming councils could meet the 10% cut in money for council tax benefit by increasing taxes on second and empty homes. One-third later said they could not do so.
The Treasury said it would keep half of business rates, which LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) called “well short of the freedom from government handouts we want”, as it would redistribute the money according to Whitehall priorities.
In a poll that can have surprised no one, barely 10% of Whitehall civil servants supported localism, with the Home Office and Department for Work & Pensions the least enthusiastic.
Weak governance of its trading bodies by Kent CC was blamed for one of the biggest local government frauds in years; Ross Knowles was jailed for seven years for a £2m fraud against energy-buying consortium Laser (Local Authorities South East Region).
An LGC survey found confidence in central government among local authorities had slumped to an all-time low, with 80% saying the government was unsupportive, and 90% that local government was not listened to.
Vince Cable and Greg Clark were the most popular choices among readers to replace Mr Pickles, though Peppa Pig, Nadine Dorries and “a chicken tikka masala” had their supporters.
Alarm over social care costs continued with an LGA report warning that popular services such as libraries and leisure could be lost, as the 29% funding gap would rise to 68% if social care and waste collection were fully funded.
Barking & Dagenham LBC chief executive Stella Manzie departed after only 18 months following reports of tension with leader Liam Smith (Lab). Thurrock Council’s Graham Farrant became the pair’s shared chief.
All top-tier councils signed up to the government’s Troubled Families scheme, although its operations would themselves prove troubled.
Employers were told a revaluation on the Local Government Pension Scheme should mean a drop in contribution rates, from 15% to 13% of pay.
In another sign of their curious take on localism, ministers barred councillors from clinical commissioning group boards.
They looked high and low, but the tri-borough councils found only 32 families that met the Troubled Families scheme’s criteria, although DCLG insisted there were 1,700.
Mr Pickles told the LGA conference he would consider making it easier for councils to sack chief executives.
His obsession with weekly bin collections garnered little support when it turned out Stoke-on-Trent City Council was the sole bidder for money to fully restore them.
After a row erupted over senior civil servants being paid through self-employed contracts, the LGA told the public accounts committee only 13 such cases existed in local government.
Incredulous MPs said there were nine in Barnet LBC alone, and PAC chair Margaret Hodge later called LGA data collection “appallingly incomplete”.
Blackburn with Darwen BC’s highly regarded chief executive Graham Burgess took the helm at Wirral.
As the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games began the sun finally shone, Great Britain won medals and stability in planning ended after a mere four months.
Mr Pickles said he would send mediators to force councils to renegotiate planning gain agreements where developers felt excessive demands for affordable housing made schemes unviable.
Councils countered that they were willing to renegotiate, but it was not their fault that developers could not develop because buyers could not borrow.
A report on maltreatment of adults with learning disabilities at the Winterbourne View home in South Gloucestershire, exposed by the Panorama TV programme, called for changes to councils’ safeguarding role.
Average chief executive salaries were revealed to be 11% lower over the year for new starters.
The LGA attacked a proposal for the National Audit Office to be allowed to identify areas for improvement in councils, fearing the back door re-creation of an inspectorate.
A ministerial reshuffle saw a clearout of DCLG except for Mr Pickles and Baroness Hanham. Newcomers were Mark Prisk, Nick Boles, Baroness Warsi, Brandon Lewis and Don Foster, but sadly not Peppa Pig. Former local government minister Bob Neill became Conservative Party vice chairman, local government.
Twelve councils were named as universal credit pilots but there was no word on ‘new burden’ money for this.
A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that central government and the LGA had an information sharing network on council performance, but they said that, like the NAO, this was not a new inspectorate. Honest.
Mr Pickles’ powers of clairvoyance were found wanting when the Audit Commission calculated its abolition might save only £8.5m over five years, rather less than the £650m he predicted.
Taking an unusual approach to winning friends, Troubled Families director-general Louise Casey told the police to “ask the local authority what the hell is going on” with their work on the programme.
Brent LBC’s long-serving chief executive Gareth Daniel departed after strained relations with leader Muhammed Butt (Lab); finance director Clive Heaphy followed.
Mr Boles met councils after an all-party rebellion over his proposal to allow home extensions without planning permission, which brought fears of neighbour conflict to the nation’s suburbs. He later appalled councils by saying this temporary proposal might become permanent.
After a year in which councils’ education role sharply declined with the spread of academies, education minister David Laws said he was interested in finding them a role between individual schools and Whitehall.
Ms Casey’s troubled families remained elusive. An LGC survey found councils had identified a mere 6.9% of the 120,000 eligible families she claimed existed.
The government set a 2% increase trigger for council tax referendums, and offered those that froze the tax grant equivalent to a 1% rise. This provoked the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy to complain council tax was not local but “effectively determined by central government”.
Children’s service chiefs launched a fruitless quest to persuade education secretary Michael Gove to ‘minimise publicity’ around adoption scorecards. Gove? Minimise? Publicity?
A number of outsourcing deals struggled during the year but at Cornwall Council leader Alec Robertson (Con) was ousted following a split in his group over one for support services.
The splendidly named Caldicot and Wentlooge Internal Drainage Board was criticised by the Wales Audit Office over its rate setting and ‘inspection visits’ that included Venice and a distillery.
Labour peers clashed with the party’s council leaders when they refused to back powers for councils to drop single persons’ council tax discounts.
Opposition parties might have thought Shropshire Council’s creation of an arm’s-length business was pants, but the council appointed former Speedo director Tom Roehricht to head it.
Voters stayed away in droves from the first police and crime commissioner elections, with Northamptonshire’s 19.5% the highest turnout. Taken with May’s mass rejection of elected mayors, LGC election pundits Rallings and Thrasher speculated the public were “not convinced by American-style democracy”.
Winners were 16 Conservatives, 13 Labour and 12 Independents. Independent George Ferguson won Bristol’s mayoralty.
The Audit Commission found a quarter of councils might struggle to balance their books in this spending review period, but DCLG permanent secretary Sir Bob Kerslake dismissed as “apocalyptic” and “pessimistic” the ‘graphs of doom’ produced by councils that showed adult social care would soon devour their budgets.
Lord Heseltine found both the LGA and Whitehall hated the idea of mass unitary reorganisation in his report on economic growth. There was a warmer reception for his championing of councils as engines of local growth.
Tiny West Somerset DC became the first council deemed unviable and it was urged to seek a boundary review. Neighbours Taunton Deane BC and Sedgemoor DC responded to this idea with a loud silence.
Huge Birmingham City Council said it faced bankruptcy unless it could capitalise all the £757m it must pay after losing an equal pay case.
Mr Pickles had to apologise for naming Hackney LBC as the worst planning authority. He meant Haringey LBC. Well, they do begin with the same letters.
Seeing a chance to grab some headlines, Ofsted threatened a crackdown on councils deemed slacking on school improvement, even though the drive for academies left them with few schools to improve.
Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement saw councils spared cuts in 2013-14 but hit with an extra 2% of cuts the following year, which LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) called “unsustainable”. The gloomy news continued with a report by audit and tax adviser Grant Thornton warning that some councils would be unable to afford to meet their legal obligations within two years.
The year ended as it had begun, with a row over reserves. The Audit Commission said these reached £12.9bn in 2012, a 36% jump since 2007, prompting further criticism from Mr Pickles of councils “hoarding billions”.
Perhaps that will give him a theme for this year’s post-Christmas message.
Happy new year!