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Government’s ‘chief cake officer’ needs to bake a bigger cake

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LGC Briefing from the District Councils’ Network conference

Cake has had a difficult period as a political metaphor in Britain. Erstwhile foreign secretary Boris Johnson infamously said his Brexit philosophy, described in cake terms, is “pro having it and eating it” – an uncomfortably close description of the British negotiating position.

Local government has its own cake problems, but the chief concerns are size and slices. Much debate has recently arisen over the government’s proposed funding formula, in the process of being modified through the fair funding review. Different types of councils are keen to ensure they have a decent serving.

Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, was not alone among ministers in telling the District Councils’ Network conference, which finished today, that she sees the need for more money. “If the government’s job is growing the cake, I suppose I’m the chief cake officer,” she said.

According to John Fuller (Con), chair of the network and leader at South Norfolk DC, districts have had some success in the last year in winning funding battles with central government. He points to the £18m extra lately promised by ministers towards the new homes bonus, calling it an “important incentive to build”.

Other achievements for districts include the confirmation earlier this year that government will cover the £153m cost of negative revenue support grant (RSG). This of course tends to favour the more prosperous parts of the country, which are more likely than most to contain districts.

Throughout the conference Cllr Fuller was keen to emphasise the lobbying power of his network, even urging at the end that delegates: “Make sure we lobby hard on the spending review”. He was also keen to press for an accommodation between counties and districts.

But it remains true that any cake is finite in size. As Cllr Fuller admits, “it has to be cut somewhere”. That is why arguments over what factors should be considered in allocating funding – deprivation, population and rurality among them – are now raging across the pages of LGC.

David Neighbour (Lib Dem), leader of Hart DC, said that fair funding is the “wrong battle”, arguing that councils simply needed more funding. Andrew Burns, past president at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, likewise said: “I don’t think it can be fair until the cake’s a lot bigger.”

Though there is much rhetoric around the end of austerity, the expectation within local government is that more money will have to be generated locally. On the wishlists of some districts is a desire for the cap to be lifted on council tax and for business rates to be retained locally.

Ministerial comments on strengthening councils’ ability to raise resources locally and even for further devolution were in good supply at the conference. Rishi Sunak, local government minister, said: “The future of local government in this country is one where councils, not central government, manage their own resources and performance.”

On this issue it appears Labour is united with the Conservatives. Andrew Gwynne, shadow communities and local government secretary, told the conference: “I want to see a clear national framework that offers devolution to every community.” He also called for more funding.

Such comments have yet to be matched with detailed plans for how it will happen. And the government’s travails in bringing powers from Brussels back to London will not have inspired confidence for an orderly passage of such powers to the provinces.

Whether Ms Truss will prove successful in her self-designated role of “chief cake officer” is in similar question at this point. For the time being, central government’s response to local government’s funding predicament seems at times like that of the fabled Marie-Antoinette quote: Let them eat cake.

Jimmy Nicholls, features editor

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