Judgment day has arrived. It is time for voters to deliver their final verdicts based on a campaign in which what has not been said has been more relevant than what has been said.
While economic competence and public spending levels have rightly been prominent in the discussion, the main parties have failed to rock the austerity consensus by discussing where they believe the cuts axe should fall (beyond ensuring the sanctity of NHS budget rises, of course).
Debate has focused broadly on competence to govern and, latterly, on which parties should be excluded from a coalition. It has failed to excite the electorate with competing and passionately held visions about the balances between public and private or central and local; public service reform has not been widely discussed.
Whatever has or has not come to the fore in the democratic process to allow the electorate to make a reasoned decision, local government should prepare for another difficult five years. Only councils’ ability to transform will prevent them from crumbling under further cuts, whoever wins power.
Central-local relations could be overseen by a new communities secretary or, indeed, no communities secretary at all if the new administration decides that Whitehall should practise what it preaches and merge the Department for Communities & Local Government with another ministry. Whether councils’ fate depends on support from the Treasury, a Department for the Devolved Nations & Local Government or a retained DCLG, one thing is certain, local government has the ability to assist the next administration to achieve its biggest goals.
The second instalment of LGC’s confidence survey this week shows the level of enthusiasm across the sector for new powers. These powers can ensure the sector provides better services more efficiently, ensure the NHS functions more effectively, ease the housing shortage and drive economic growth.
For too long there has been insufficient appreciation that the centre does not always hold the answer. Labour made progress on recognising this by devolving powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, although councils’ main memory of the Blair administration will be the stifling top-down culture it promoted.
Likewise, the Conservative-led coalition made an unexpected step forward with the dramatic devolution deal agreed with Greater Manchester authorities, although its disproportionate targeting of spending cuts on local government has diminished the sector’s abilities. The Tory manifesto suggests only urban areas adopting elected mayors would receive Manchester-style levels of devolution in the next five years. However, the confidence survey shows senior officers’ level of distrust of elected mayors; devolution cannot succeed under a straitjacket imposed by the centre.
In recent times the terms of the argument have changed. Chinks have appeared in our centralised state; increasing numbers of figures from across the political spectrum appreciate local government offers many answers.
From almost as soon as the new government is formed, councils must concentrate their efforts on winning over new ministers with their competence, innovation and successes to win this battle for good.