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Ministers' 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude to councils must end

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All too often the government’s attitude to local government can be categorised as “out of sight, out of mind”. The shadow of Brexit’s cloak of doom obscures most things right now.

However, local government made a high-profile sortie to the front of the collective ministerial consciousness earlier this week – when Sajid Javid and Theresa May lambasted the sector for its apparent failure to ensure homes get built.

While some councils do block too many new homes, scores of headlines relating to “nimby councils” were not a fair reflection of where culpability lies for failure to address the housing crisis. “Land-banking developers” and “ineffective ministers” surely merit far harsher headlines.

In her showpiece housing speech, the prime minister legitimately espoused the benefits of homeownership among the (relatively) young. However, she has become increasingly blind to the plight of more vulnerable younger people. Many have basic unmet needs as a result of austerity.

LGC analysis shows an astonishing 63% of area reviews of special educational needs and disabilities provision undertaken in the past year have uncovered weaknesses. It is not that councils do not regard these services as important, but they simply lack the proper resources to offer the service levels they desire. SEND services, like a myriad of other areas of council provision, are deteriorating due to funding cuts – but the government continues to look the other way.

Ministers need to be a willing to accept responsibility for the tough stuff as they are willing to dole out the blame

Evidence of the scale of local government’s financial crisis comes today as the National Audit Office reports on the sector’s financial health. The spending watchdog reveals that more than a fifth of top-tier councils are running through their reserves at such a rate that they are set to follow Northamptonshire CC in issuing a section 114 notice within the next five years. Authorities are in an impossible situation, buffeted by rising demand for services on one side and reduced funding on the other.

Councils’ plight is growing ever greater, as is the government’s inability to appreciate the scale of the challenge. In response to the NAO review, a government spokesman trotted out all the usual lines about the recent finance settlement striking “a balance between relieving growing pressure on local government and ensuring hard-pressed taxpayers do not face excessive bills” and how councils are getting “a real-terms increase in resources over the next two years”. The NAO’s research suggests a far more negative picture.

We need more straight-talking honesty from our ministers. They need to be as willing to accept the responsibility for the tough stuff – the devastating impact on services of austerity – as they are willing to dole out the blame.

In something of a breath of fresh air, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government minister Heather Wheeler this week said she would resign if rough sleeping worsens. If her ministerial colleagues are so certain they’re getting the balance right on council funding, they should make similar commitments to resign in the event of a spate of Northamptonshires.

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