John Fuller (Con), leader at South Norfolk Council and chair of the District Councils’ Network, was in ebullient mood at the network’s third annual conference earlier in February.
The clout of the districts was shown in the ministers the event drew. Housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire, local government minister Rishi Sunak and Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss all gave sympathetic speeches indicating they were in districts’ corner.
“Our time has come,” Cllr Fuller told LGC on the event sidelines. “We’re not playing second fiddle anymore.”
By his own admission the network has “come a very long way” within the last three years. Among the recent victories Cllr Fuller celebrated were the government’s promise of £18m towards the new homes bonus, and to cover the £153m cost of negative revenue support grant (RSG).
“Clearly ministers decide, but we’re shaping those decisions,” he said.
The closeness of district councils to ministers may prove decisive to the funding balance within local government. The ongoing debate about the tier split on business rates will be “a defining moment” in the relationship between districts and counties, Cllr Fuller said. This week it emerged the two sides had adopted diamtrically opposed positions on the issue.
“I see it as our responsibility to come to an accommodation with the counties, and I hope the counties see it the other way,” Cllr Fuller said. “How can we have a bigger conversation about the whole of the local state going forward as part of the spending review if we can’t sort out tier splits?”
“Clearly ministers decide, but we’re shaping those decisions.”
Cllr Fuller is keen that if local areas can agree splits this should be the default. However, the County Councils Network has called for a “fall back default” where no local agreement can be found, a sign of the risk that ministers may be obliged to step in.
On broader funding, Cllr Fuller wants the future agreed on the basis of “no detriment”, meaning that no council will be worse off than before the review.
“After that we’re on our own living on our wits, doing business rates retention, commercialisation, fees and charges – all those things that are in there with a redistribution that’s based on population with an element of deprivation,” he said. “That ought to be an objective.”
At the District Councils’ Network event many argued that the size of the funding cake is more fundamental than how it is cut. David Neighbour (Lib Dem), leader of Hart DC, said that fair funding is the “wrong battle”, while Andrew Burns, past president at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, said: “I don’t think it can be fair until the cake’s a lot bigger.”
Challenged on cake size, Cllr Fuller said: “No-one disagrees with that: we can always use more money. But to make the argument for more money requires more than just standing by the side of the road with your hand out.”
The difficulty is finding the money when austerity shows no sign of ending. Cllr Fuller noted that the burden for looking after unaccompanied asylum seekers can fall on districts – something he has no problem with. But he argues that other government departments, including the Department for International Development should be paying.
“The Home Office is never going to sort out failed asylum seekers in Croydon until they start paying our bed and breakfast bill,” he said.
This is one example of a more general trend he highlighted of government departments “cost-shunting” onto councils. He also complained that there is an excess of people being misdiagnosed with special needs.
“There are certain councils where the GPs are being bullied by people to get their youngsters registered as SEND [special education needs and disability],” Cllr Fuller said. “But there are perverse incentives in the system to characterise children as that.”
He hopes that the spending review will address some of these incentives. “We’re being asked to do too much with the money we’ve been given,” he said. “And some of that too much is backfilling slackness in other parts of the government.”
”We’re being asked to do too much with the money we’ve been given.”
Much of this will inevitably have to wait as the official deadline for Brexit approaches on the 29 March. As a member of the Brexit ministerial local government delivery board, Cllr Fuller reports that “the civil service is struggling to keep up”.
He notes that certain areas, particularly those around major ports and airports, may require additional support. District councils have a role in food inspection and environmental health, so will be affected. If Brexit is delayed, district councils may also need to organise elections to the European Parliament.
But overall: “I’m not worried.”
If anything, the dysfunction within Westminster seems to have buoyed the prospects of districts and other councils. “I knock on doors: people are fed up with what goes on in London,” Cllr Fuller said. “Reputationally they’re dragging us all into the gutter in London.”
He argues that districts work on a scale that residents can understand, and that they are more in tune with local circumstances. Perhaps more contentiously, he argues that district councils can give the straight answers that national politicians infamously avoid.
The pollster Ipsos MORI’s trust index, last published in November, showed that councillors were trusted to tell the truth by 40% of survey respondents, double that of government ministers and politicians generally.
“With districts you will get a straight answer,” Cllr Fuller says. You may not like it, but you will get a straight answer. People understand that. It’s the understanding that generates the trust.”
His broader vision is that districts can specialise in the kind of personalisation that individuals are increasingly looking for, which he terms a “retail concept”. “Retail is detail and we’re the detailers,” he said.
“Being able to personalise a service down to quite an individual level, that’s responding to the market – it’s not wholesale,” he said. “We can get really granular, really particular, bespoke solutions to local problems. That’s retail. We’re retailers.”