The housing and communities secretary has insisted to LGC that the forthcoming spending review period should be seen by local government in “a different context” to its recent predecessors during which “real savings” were required.
In an LGC interview James Brokenshire pledged to be “championing the local government sector” in his negotiations with the Treasury in the run up to next year’s spending review which will lay the foundations for government expenditure in 2020-21 and beyond.
Asked when austerity would end for local government, Mr Brokenshire replied: “The prime minister was very clear at [last month’s Conservative party] conference in saying that austerity is coming to an end.”
He said economic forecasting suggested a “2% increase in terms of what’s available, in real terms, in terms of the overall settlement” for public services.
Responding to fears that most of the money available would be taken up by Theresa May’s pledge of £20.5bn extra annual NHS funding, Mr Brokenshire continued: “Even when you take health out of that it still leaves you with at least a growth in [line with] inflation for everyone across Whitehall.
“When you contrast that with previous spending reviews when in essence there were real terms savings that were having to be made, this is a different context that we’re coming towards.”
While the “overall spending envelope” for councils looks less harsh, Mr Brokenshire said there would still be “a requirement to drive innovation, to look at ways in which we can deliver more effective, more efficient services”.
Speaking to LGC at the County Councils Network conference in Guildford, Mr Brokenshire pledged to “underline” care funding pressures in negotiations with the Treasury. Asked if this would mean county councils – which spend a particularly high proportion of their resources on care – would be in line for a bigger proportion of funds as part of the fair funding review, Mr Brokenshire said that while he was anxious not to “prejudice” the review, “I hear the call very clearly from the CCN on their analysis of relative needs”.
“We know that some of the top-tier councils have been experiencing some of the most acute pressures over children’s and adults social care,” he said, noting how they had received £650m in additional care funding in the Budget. This was a “lead towards discussions that will take place over the social care green paper and discussions that I’ll be having with the chancellor with the spending review next year”.
Mr Brokenshire said the spending and fair funding reviews should be “looked at in a basket of different work” being undertaken, including the social care green paper and increased local business rates retention.
On reorganisation, the secretary of state confirmed that a provision of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 which allows ministers to fast-track new unitary councils ceases at the end of March 2019. This would mean that reorganisation reverted to previous rules which required the unanimous agreement of the county and districts in an area or a “formal invitation” from the secretary of state for restructuring to be undertaken.
Mr Brokenshire said he would give “some greater clarification” on his approach to the invitation “in due course”, although he insisted any new unitary should “drive innovation” and have “good local support”. He added: “I won’t have any top-down approach to devolution.”