“The end is nigh” is a phrase heard increasingly regularly in town, city and county halls – but today, for once, LGC is using it in an uplifting way. Yes, New Year’s Eve will mark just one year being left of what has been a sorry decade for local government.
The extent to which the sector’s ambitions have been restricted was hammered home last week when Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes spoke at a public accounts committee hearing. Under questioning, Ms Dawes deemed local government sustainable if it had sufficient resources “to deliver the statutory services which it is required to do”.
Leaving aside the fact that it is not necessarily always clear whether a service is “statutory”, Ms Dawes’ comments point to a miserable future for councils. If it is the centre’s role merely to ensure local government can fulfil little more than the most critical social care and children’s services, it hardly empowers councils to meet the unique needs and wishes of their local populations.
Skills, youth and family support, economic regeneration and community engagement would appear to count for little. And neither do preventative services, within which contraction is resulting in growing future burdens for social workers, police and the NHS. Of course, it is easier for ministers to blame Sadiq Khan for London’s knife crime epidemic than to consider how austerity’s destruction of youth services may have aided gang culture’s growth. But if the whole point of austerity was to make Britain sustainable, then it’s having the opposite effect.
There has to be a better way. Either the government supplies sufficient resources or it lets go, giving councils the ability to raise money how they wish to fulfil local needs with the centre confining its role to redistributing money from rich to poor areas.
We cannot allow the 2020s to constitute more of the same. Local government cannot repeat the mistakes of the past decade in which the sector has – dare we say it – been supine amid austerity’s onslaught.
This year has seen some progress in the popular understanding of councils’ plight. Northamptonshire CC’s collapse made local government big news. Awareness has grown among the media and general public, but probably not to the extent that the government is on course to be forced to dramatically change course. Local government must do better.
2019 should be the year in which local government – its councillors, officers and service users – march on the streets of central London and in towns and cities across the land against the decline of local services. Let’s see Lord Porter (Con) and Nick Forbes (Lab) jointly tell a Parliament Square rally that enough is enough. LGC has argued before that local government needs a positive working relationship with ministers to make the case for extra funding in the spending review. Yes, but this does not mean that local government should not at the same time emphasise its importance and its popular backing. The time has arrived for local government to use people power to overcome its demise.