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A wiser government would invest in the local – not in doing less

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There has been no shortage of reminders of the paucity of national political talent in recent times. 

We have a cabinet member – the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, no less – to whom it is a surprise that the Northern Irish electorate tends to divide on sectarian lines at the ballot box. And our nation’s course has been successfully changed by the leaders of the Brexiteer movement who carp at Theresa May’s (flawed) Chequers plan without having the guts to present any workable alternative. The least said about Labour’s leadership (if that is not a contradiction in terms) the better.

So it comes as no surprise that the National Audit Office this week reports how Home Office ministers (it was, for so long, the department of Ms May, of course) have failed to question the sustainability of the police service. This is despite budgets falling by up to a quarter this decade. Many in local government may get a sense of déjà vu: the NAO in March said ministers risked “sleep walking” towards centralism because ministers’ failure to address adult social care funding pressures was eroding councils’ sustainability.

There was a legitimate reason for the government to tighten its belt at the start of this decade: nations, like individuals, need to live within their means. Future generations should not pay for present excesses (be they a plump public sector, tax cuts for the rich or bailouts of financial institutions that serve few people well). However, the unquestioning mantra of austerity has constantly overridden common sense. Budgets are repeatedly cut, generally without reflection on the impact. All too often spending reductions are counterproductive, loading future citizens with costs as the nation fails to invest in both preventing future problems and equipping us to seize future opportunity. Welfare cuts increase poverty and the burden on the state, children’s services cuts mean more people will be scarred by difficult starts in life, and reduced transport budgets increase regional inequality and reduce opportunity. But the government has not changed course. 

Now LGC reveals how the total cost of redundancy in local government this decade has reached nearly £4bn. This is money spent on doing less, not doing more.

This is not to say there was no fat to cut. And some councils – most notably Wigan MBC – have successfully found a new model that adapts to their reduced finances. However, the overall impact of the loss of so many jobs has been that a weakened state does less good. 

As we approach the spending review, now is the time to demand a change of course. Austerity cannot whittle away the more creative and responsive (local) bit of the public sector, leaving behind a largely badly led, visionless centre. Institute for Government research shows the number of civil servants has increased sharply in response to Brexit.  A wiser national administration would be preparing for a decade of investment in local councils in response to the disenchantment with unresponsive and inflexible higher levels of government.

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