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Adam Lent: May's electoral woe could result in purse strings loosening

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Whatever their party allegiance, I suspect councillors and officers everywhere will be scratching their heads about what this unexpected outcome means for local government.

On one hand, this result spells uncertainty for many issues that councils were hoping might secure some sort of resolution over the next few years. A government with a firm majority would not have delivered everything the sector wanted on housing, local government finance, devolution and clarity around Brexit but it would have been well placed at least to make some serious progress on these issues. A very shaky administration constantly looking to its backbenches, the next election and Brexit negotiations that just got even more complex is unlikely to be an administration with the capacity or political capital to address such big and difficult questions.

Most worryingly, the long-hoped for resolution of the social care crisis has been hit by a double whammy. Not just the uncertainty of the result but also the fact that many may well identify Theresa May’s willingness to offer a bold (if wrong-headed) policy on social care as being a major cause of her failure to secure a majority.

And, of course, if weak government means a weak economy, a hit to jobs and investment will only add to the pressures on councils.

On the other hand, while the short-term politics may not play well for local government, the broader shift in opinion that the result indicates may end up benefitting the sector.

It seems unlikely that any party will want to go into another election (which may be very soon) with a commitment to maintain such tight funding plans for public services as the Conservatives. Any sort of loosening of the purse strings will come as a relief to councils.

Although the lack of clarity on Brexit may worry the sector, the possibility of a softer exit from the EU will probably be widely welcomed. Councils were increasingly worried about the impact that a hard Brexit might have on local labour markets, council workforces and business investment. A more flexible approach will soothe some nerves.

The apparent attractiveness of Labour’s ambitious plans in areas such as house-building, homelessness and poverty might also spark something of an arms race between the parties to be seen to be putting funds and efforts behind the major social challenges local government faces every day. Equally public investment plans for the economy look likely to only get bolder.

So while councillors and officers may well be just as baffled over the coming days and months as everyone else by the glorious unpredictability of the British electorate, this election may ultimately come to be seen as a turning point for public services and local government.

Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network

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