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Local government finance dominating PMQs? Elections must be in the air

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LGC’s essential daily briefing. 

Prime Minister’s Questions is often dominated by national (and more recently) international affairs.

After all, it’s not like there’s a shortage of material for the leader of the opposition to choose from. In recent weeks Jeremy Corbyn has majored on Brexit, NHS funding, and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

Today the weekly bun fight shifted to more local affairs as the Labour leader decided to focus his attentions on the plight of Conservative-run Northamptonshire CC.

He asked the prime minister if the troubles the county council finds itself in are the result of “Conservative incompetence at a local level or Conservative incompetence at a national level?”

He followed it up by focusing on Northamptonshire’s next generation model, which came in for a lot of criticism in inspector Max Caller’s report, and asked Theresa May if she thought “the slash-and-burn model for local government really is a good one?”

Ms May said Mr Caller’s report showed “Northamptonshire’s failure is not a case of underfunding” – the theme of the report was that the county council’s problems stemmed from an inability to manage budgets rather the overall quantum of funding available to it not being enough.

While it would be nice to think that the financial issues facing councils have finally attracted the full attention of national politicians, there is a more likely reason this debate took place today.

Local elections are just over six weeks away so this was a mere preview into what we can expect in the weeks ahead.

For the Conservatives, Northamptonshire’s collapse is an uncomfortable case study but the warnings coming from other prominent Tory council leaders will only pile on more pressure.

Surrey CC’s David Hodge reportedly said last month that “We’re facing the most difficult financial crisis in our history” and added: “The government cannot stand idly by when Rome burns.”

Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) is never backwards in coming forwards and he has done more than his fair share of sounding warnings about the financial pressures facing adult and children’s social care services.

For the government, the noise is getting louder and coming from an increasing number of directions.

Throw in Brexit, and the seemingly insipid interest in councils’ roles once Britain does leave the European Union, and the Conservatives are on uncomfortable ground.

Writing for LGC last week, Sir John Curtice said “polls suggest that the Conservatives could be set for further, perhaps quite heavy, losses” in London.

But all is not well on the other side of the house, either.

At PMQs Ms May attacked Labour over splits within Mr Corbyn’s party and the lack of support its senior leadership has shown departing, moderate, centrist leaders at Haringey LBC (Claire Kober) and Brighton & Hove City Council (Warren Morgan).

LGC wrote extensively yesterday about local leaders’ bids to get more influence as concerns over increased centralism in the party grow.

Such divisions are proving tricky for Labour’s leadership, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the weeks ahead.

While discussions about fair funding are ongoing – the government’s consultation only closed last week – a major, detailed discussion about how the sector is funded (and by how much) beyond 2020 needs to be had.

As Martin Reeves, finance lead for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said in an LGC interview this week: “Now is the time for more magnanimous, joined up story-telling on behalf of the sector.”

Whether the debate and discussion on the campaign trail gets beyond cheap political point scoring remains to be seen. But if this election helps to focus the minds of not just national politicians but the wider public too on the precarious position local government finance is in, then that will be welcomed.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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