Jo Miller has urged councils to fight “vilification” stemming from service failures that result from their funding being slashed.
In an LGC interview, the president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers also addressed critics of sector leaders’ response to the Grenfell Tower fire and said the tragedy should “change everything” about how social housing and inequality are perceived.
Speaking to LGC at the People’s Powerhouse event in Doncaster last week, Ms Miller cited communities secretary Sajid Javid’s controversial and challenging speech to the Local Government Association annual conference earlier this month to say: “We can’t allow the vilification of local government because of the lack of finance.”
She continued: “It’s obvious that if you cut and cut and cut then there will be service failure and whose fault is that service failure? The fault of the council and its partners and who have done their best or the fault of those who’ve made political choices as a result of what they’ve decided to fund and not fund?”
Mr Javid enraged many LGA delegates by saying local government “faced a looming crisis of trust” resulting from the response to Grenfell but made no mention of any deficiencies in the government’s own performance, or of the impact of cuts.
Ms Miller said: “Grenfell has to change everything.” She called for a change in the attitude towards social housing, seen from successive governments, which regarded it as “housing of last resort”, with “dehumanised” residents not entitled to secure tenancies.
She also addressed criticisms of Solace, alongside the LGA, for being too slow to speak up for the sector following Grenfell. While Solace had so far “focused on practical things”, such as supporting councils involved, she hinted at a change of approach: “We have to influence and shape that debate.”
Ms Miller also predicted the government had no option but to offer councils more resources in the run-up to 2020, when revenue support grant was due to be phased out, as the controversy over further service losses would be too much for a minority government to bear.
“If I observe what’s happened with government at every time in this period of austerity, whether it’s issues in prisons, the police or hospitals and bed-blocking, the reality is the magic money tap is turned on to deal with the problem and then it’s turned off again,” she said.
“It’s not the most strategic way to deal with public services or the most sensible way. But the reality is that come 2020 they are going to have to do something.”
Ms Miller, who is also chief executive of Doncaster MBC, spoke about the themes of the People’s Powerhouse, including reframing the Northern Powerhouse to emphasise social inclusion and more representation of women and minority groups.
She criticised the Whitehall-designed universal credit system under which recipients regularly wait six weeks to receive their first payment asking: “Who feeds those children? Do you wonder why our neglect figures are going through the roof? So we’ve got a system that doesn’t save money and it’s also inhumane. It doesn’t seem to me that this is a civilised society.”
Councils could “ultimately deliver more effective public services at less cost”, she said. A council-designed system could offer recipients basic bank account facilities and access to gas and electricity.
The Solace president insisted her vision of a socially inclusive Northern Powerhouse could coexist alongside the emphasis on infrastructure and investment in the vision of former chancellor George Osborne.
Whereas, under Mr Osborne’s vision, there was largely a focus on “city-to-city connectivity”, this did not support “the ability of someone at one end of Barnsley to get to a job at the other end” of the town. A more diverse set of decision makers would realise the importance of tackling such difficulties, Ms Miller said.