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Tony Travers: Chaos in the cabinet presents an opportunity

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This year’s Local Government Association conference coincides with a period of desperate uncertainty within national politics.

The prime minister has been badly weakened by her failed ‘big majority’ gamble and is held in office by Conservative MPs who want to avoid any risk of a further general election.

Cabinet collective responsibility has all but broken down, with ministers lobbying for policy changes against stated government policy. Brexit policy remains obscure and undetailed, while the clock ticks down to March 2019.

A number of cabinet members have been lobbying for higher public spending. The removal of the ‘1%’ cap on public sector pay, additional resources for schools, reduced student fees, extra police funding and more for defence have been among the most audible proposals. The LGA has begun to make the case for local government being included in any relaxation of austerity.

Following the Grenfell Tower disaster, councils and other public bodies are going to have to spend billions on improved cladding, sprinkler systems and other safety measures. It is still unclear how this will be paid for.

Government statements speak about ‘support’ not ‘resources’ for councils. There is a real risk that existing housing budgets will have to be diverted towards such safety improvements at the expense of all other spending.

Indeed, if the recent past is to be a guide, any lightening of austerity is likely to benefit the NHS and schools first, with local authorities at the back of the queue. Councils are so good at managing spending cuts that they have been able to disguise the impact of much-reduced resources.

NHS spending has risen by between 5 and 10% in real terms since 2009-10, while many city councils have seen theirs cut by 35 to 45%. Yet there are no cabinet ministers lobbying publicly for an end to local government austerity.

With the government struggling to assert its authority and Whitehall’s Brexit strategy barely being discussed, the future is muddled and unpredictable.

The LGA, high-profile mayors and other council representatives need to remind the centre that local government is scheduled to face further cuts to non-adult care spending between now and 2020. Chaos presents an opportunity.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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