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Sector needs more national supporters if it is to avoid collapse

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The chasm between the centre and the local has never been bigger, with the former increasingly oblivious to its defenestration of the latter. 

The past fortnight has seen numerous examples of ministers and MPs offering warm words (and money) to local government without acknowledging, and most probably without being aware, of their culpability in the destruction of all things local. 

Most notably, the Budget was more generous than has generally been the case this decade, with extra money for social care and potholes. The most prominent division within local government was whether the Budget offered crumbs of comfort or sticking plasters. It certainly did not amount to an end to austerity. And the centre consulting on whether retail premises can be converted into residential units without planning permission hardly made this a localist Budget. 

While LGC argues that councils must acknowledge that the mood music from Philip Hammond has changed, the financial reality has not. This Budget does nothing to change the situation that councils have scarce resources when the demand for services is rising. The Care Quality Commission’s warning to 84 councils on Tuesday about the parlous state of the Allied Healthcare services they commission puts the sector on notice to sort out yet more of central austerity’s sorry local impact.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock this week pledged to shift resources from hospitals to prevention. However, austerity means councils, such as East Sussex CC, are having to shift resources away from prevention to a statutory core minimum. Theresa May’s £20.5bn promise to NHS England services, at a time of public health and social care cuts, and continuing delays to the release of the social care green paper, amounts to a deterrent to spend on preventative measures. Joined up government this is not.

We also saw seven Conservative MPs demanding an end to moves for a unitary reorganisation of Leicestershire. The scale of spending cuts is making two-tier governance unviable: there can be no justification for these backbenchers to seek to maintain the status quo when they have voted through the cuts which make the status quo unsustainable.

One senior MP recently confided in LGC that only 5-10% of their counterparts “get local government”, with the rest being completely ignorant. While MPs obsess about Brexit they are often blind to the catastrophic destruction of the services in their own backyard. Of course, they may complain about the impact of certain council cuts, but often (with regards to Conservatives) without recognising why these cuts are taking place.

Yes, our parliamentarians are failing local services and it should not be like this. But local government needs to ask itself why it has failed to convince MPs of its value. While the lifting of the housing revenue borrowing cap, confirmed in the Budget, was local government’s biggest success in years, its victories will be few and far between unless it successfully brings more national politicians on side. Austerity is eroding local decision making and the sector needs national support to prevent its collapse.

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