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Councils' decline is as much a part of government's legacy as Brexit

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So the inevitable has happened and Northamptonshire CC has finally plunged into the abyss, quite possibly for good, by issuing a section 114 notice.

Sajid Javid now has to choose whether to bail out this Conservative council, write it off as a lost cause or provide the funding required to make local government as a whole sustainable. The odds would appear to be against the latter option.

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to fear last month’s appointment of Max Caller, the former chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, as the inspector to lead intervention in the county heralds its abolition. Mr Caller is surely the best-placed man to recommend whether and how Northamptonshire could be divided up, for instance into two hopefully more sustainable unitary authorities.

Northamptonshire CC has been attacked for failing to take tough decisions sooner. While this criticism may be partially justified it pales into insignificance when compared with the impact of the unjust and unsustainable council finance system.

Northamptonshire’s councillors of previous decades who opted for low council tax had no idea a future combination of austerity and restrictions on council tax rises meant they were in effect digging their council’s grave. Similarly, any finance system (or structure) that gives the district tier more than its proportionate share of the proceeds of growth and the upper tier the vast majority of the burdens of growth is hardly fit for purpose.

There is no indication Theresa May’s administration has woken up to the fact it is irrevocably destroying services

It would be unfortunate should this combination of factors rob the residents of this great county of their political identity. While the housing and communities secretary has finally got off the fence and supported reorganisation of councils in Dorset, the government’s approach to restructuring has been preoccupied with ensuring broad support for proposals. Northamptonshire’s financial failure is not an excuse to avoid consulting residents about their identity preference.

Barring the unexpected arrival of a fair funding system, there will be other Northamptonshires – maybe six councils are within a year of failing, according to Rob Whiteman. 

There is no indication Theresa May’s administration – which continues to disproportionately target councils for cuts – has woken up to the fact that it is irrevocably destroying services. No matter what evidence emerges of the devastating impact of austerity, or indeed the long-term foolhardiness of cuts in areas such as public health or social care, the government remorselessly ploughs on.

LGC’s magazine recently carried a bandage-adorned front cover relating to social care which urged “no more sticking plasters”. It appears Mr Javid has mislaid his copy. The £150m adult care support grant, announced in the final settlement on Tuesday, is the epitome of a sticking plaster – yet another short-term means of slightly slowing the speed of local government’s decline.

Ministers are too preoccupied with Brexit to act decisively to save councils. It seems likely that the withdrawal of the local democratic element of the public sector will be as much part this government’s legacy as withdrawal from the European Union.

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