The centralised state is offering no remedy to our most intractable ills, writes LGC’s Nick Golding
This week has provided a glut of evidence of how the current centrally driven council finance system is not working. This is no small glut – it’s something on the scale of a plague of locusts, or an oversupply of England World Cup merchandise at a time demand suddenly plummets.
First the LGA has warned it faces a £5.8bn funding shortfall, which will leave councils having to save the equivalent of 12.5% of their budgets in the next year. As demand for social care and waste disposal soars, this will reduce funding available for other services by 43% over the next five years. Libraries, parks and public transport are set to decline on an epic scale.
Then the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services revealed how social care funding has dropped by 12% in real terms while the number of people requiring support has soared by 14%. This is hitting providers and adding to pressure on the NHS. It also has disastrous effects on both some of the most vulnerable people in society – with more of them finding their carer’s visit has been cut to 15 minutes – and the care workforce, perhaps society’s most underpaid sector.
Also this week, responses came in to a Department for Education consultation on proposals to make £200m savings to the education services grant, a per-pupil grant paid to local authorities and academy schools. As ever, it is councils’ maintained schools that suffer while academy schools, overseen by Whitehall, are spared the pain.
While all of this was happening the communities secretary was attempting to ban councils from using ‘spy cars’, mounted with CCTV cameras, from enforcing parking restrictions. Councils are to be denied the freedom to decide how to enforce their parking rules and be held account for it by their local electorate. Eric Pickles’ concerns amount to utter trivia when compared to older people’s welfare or what appears to be the forthcoming demise of libraries, parks and transport.
Many of the problems afflicting England’s local public services are the result of its over-centralised systems of political and financial control. Local innovators are not being given the space or resources to devise their own solutions and are left to cope with society’s most intractable problems with little support. The government retains cash for itself while disproportionately subjecting councils to the impact of cuts and in this climate – quelle surprise – council services suffer.
While the deficit has to be tackled and local government cannot be allowed an unaffordable spending binge, insurmountable barriers are being placed in the way of councils seeking to create the growth that could help alleviate the country’s fiscal woes.
Labour this week set out plans to devolve £30bn of funding to combined authorities to drive growth. This would constitute a welcome step forward but it can only constitute one element of the devolution required in so many aspects of national policy. The new evidence of threats to services presented this week comes amid a dearth of creativity from national parties and organisations about how to solve our ills. It’s time to give local bodies power to attempt to make a change.