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Truth without reconciliation

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Predicting the future can be a fickle business, but looking several years ahead is central councils’ work so it has to be part of your skillset.

That’s why the latest LGC confidence survey makes compelling reading. It shows councils are well aware of the reality of their situation and how the worst is yet to come.

If there is one overriding theme to our survey it is truth without reconciliation.

The biggest example is the feeling of a lack of candour by ministers over how deep and how many cuts need to be made.

From the frontloading of savings to the failure of two Whitehall departments to explain if the 2015-16 spending drop is or isn’t 2.3%, there is now a credibility gap that must be addressed by those at the heart of government.

An emerging issue is that as the government’s social care reforms unfold, many are now realising they are likely to deliver even more cost pressures to council budgets.

There is frustration that councils are being held back from creating the growth that can generate tax revenue. The local enterprise partnerships are on notice to start delivering real results.

Changes to the benefits system are clearly beginning to take effect and a year from now the evidence will show whether concerns raised now were justified.

This is more than the well-worn complaints about a lack of cash that surface even in the years of plenty. It is deep concern based on evidence of the in-trays of officers.

The message is that service providers have been able to hold the line until now but cannot guarantee to be able to do so for much longer.

This is not to say that the sector has given in.

The forecast by respondents to our confidence survey on the wider economic recovery taking hold is a good reminder that local government does see the bigger picture.

Away from the survey, Norfolk and Suffolk CC’s new partnership is a pragmatic response to big issues such as social care that ministers of all governments have ignored for years.

The two county leaders described their agreement as a ‘statement of intent’ transcending political divisions.

The LGA’s announcement of a municipal bond scheme will drive better deals for funding and increase liquidity.

If timed right, this creates a lifeline that can mitigate the worst effects of the grant reduction from central government.

It could create revenue streams to help communities with initiatives like house-building - which has stalled under two governments - and create jobs.

Pension funds and the private sector would readily partner organisations that have a better risk profile than a lot of investment funds currently touting for business.

Ultimately this creates local power bases that are less affected by ministerial edicts. It’s just possible that local authorities will have the last laugh.

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