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What now for Whitehall-town hall relations?

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The verdict is in: a modestly good night for Labour, a pretty good mid-term performance for the Conservatives, and a double blow for the Liberal Democrats as they lost both the AV referendum and their northern city councils.

In a sense, these elections change few of the fundamentals. The cuts are still going to happen, and the challenge for local government is still to limit their impact on the public through innovation and service transformation.

But the backdrop against which the cuts are played out matters, and that backdrop is changing. Look out for at least three potential shifts in emphasis over the coming months.

What will this set of elections will mean for the relationship between town hall and Whitehall?

First is the impact that these elections will have on the balance of power within the coalition. Nick Clegg’s backbenchers have been vocal over the weekend in attacking Tory behaviour over the AV referendum. Some are now calling for the Lib Dems to push much harder for policy concessions in other areas, and it appears Mr Clegg is listening. This might include demands for the pause in the NHS reforms to become permanent, as well as rearguard action on plans for elected police commissioners. There is an outside chance that Mr Clegg might step up his efforts to influence the local government finance review, pushing it beyond the current narrow focus on repatriating business rate growth. That would certainly help to placate the Lib Dem activist base.

Secondly, it will be interesting to see how the new Labour administrations react to the cuts. Many of the 26 new leaders will have come to power campaigning against cuts that they now have to implement. They will quite reasonably want to review and reverse some of the cuts planned by their predecessors, but they need to do it quickly and resist the temptation to put off painful decisions.

The final question is what this set of elections will mean for the relationship between town hall and Whitehall. Local government has been on the back foot for the coalition’s first year, but Labour councillors may now take a more aggressive stance towards the coalition, not least through their increased representation on the LGA.

Could we see plans emerging for proportional representation in council elections?

This could have a direct impact on David Cameron’s decisions about the future of his cabinet. There is widespread speculation that there could be a reshuffle before the summer. Many had assumed that the PM would want to sue for peace with local government once we were past the local elections, perhaps promoting Greg Clark or Grant Shapps to the top job at DCLG. But if Mr Cameron senses a more strident tone from the sector, he might be tempted to keep Eric Pickles in place as an attack dog.

One final thought: it seems just possible that with AV defeated, the constitutional reformers among the Liberal Democrats might turn their attention to local government. Could we see plans emerging for proportional representation in council elections?

There are two broad scenarios that emerge from these elections. In the best case, we see central government scaling back its assault on councils and offering an olive branch to avoid another year of skirmishing. Especially if combined with a slowing down of the pace of change in the NHS and police forces, that would provide some welcome stability for the sector.

But equally, we could simply see Labour councils and Conservative ministers turning up the heat on each other. On balance, that is probably the most likely outcome. 

Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network

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