“We’re all in this together” was David Cameron’s mantra at the start of austerity. These days it feels like local government is in it all by itself.
Of course that perception is not entirely true: ask any nurse, police officer, fire fighter or prison officer and they’ll say their profession has been sacrificed on the altar of austerity. However, councils have borne just about the worst burden of cuts of any part of the public sector. Few in local government believe ministers appreciate the scale of the challenge.
LGC this week carries this quote from a council leader of the government: “They have said they will still look at fairer funding but it is taking so long and we’re running out of time.” It comes not from the Labour leader of a northern met – it’s from Northamptonshire CC’s Heather Smith, a Tory. Her council, which is trying its best to innovate its way out of financial difficulty, is warning it cannot balance its books.
Northamptonshire has seen high population growth, placing rising demand on its services, while its districts get the lion’s share of any spoils of the booming economy that end up with local government. Ministers have stuck their fingers in their ears to such authorities’ plight. The sticking plasters of the transition grant and the better care fund are grossly insufficient.
The sticking plasters of the transition grant and the better care fund are grossly insufficient
Similarly, Conservative Warwickshire and Staffordshire CCs are among the signatories to West Midlands councils’ letter urging the health secretary to intervene over NHS England’s plans to penalise local government for delayed transfers of care. Money is set to be taken from councils that already lack the resources to tackle this problem. The government has so far stood back.
Further evidence of discontent emerges in LGC’s Confidence Survey. An astonishing 93% of our senior council manager respondents said the government was having a negative impact on their sector. Communities secretary Sajid Javid and his ministerial team had a net -81% rating for being fair and reasoned critics of councils.
The danger is that things get even worse. As ministers concentrate increasingly on Brexit, it is hard to believe they will have any attention left for local government. We may well see more policies on a par with the ineptitude of the Homelessness Reduction Act – which has so far appeared to amount to giving councils new responsibilities without anything like the required resources and clarity to make a success of their role. A more far-sighted administration would simply smash the shackles that prevent council house building.
Philip Hammond’s 22 November Budget presents an opportunity to change course. Mr Hammond makes an unlikely radical. However, radicalism has to be his only option. If he is not radical now, he’ll certainly have to be after Northamptonshire, Birmingham City Council et al collapse, alongside the entire social care system. That is, of course, assuming it is not the more natural radical John McDonnell who is left to deal with that mess.