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Out of an existential crisis exudes optimism

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LGC’s take on the mood at the first District Councils’ Network conference

With high-profile disputes rumbling on in two-tier areas over reorganisation, the first national conference of the District Councils’ Network could have been defined by a pervading anxiety arising from existential crisis.

Manoeuvres in Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Lincolnshire, where district and county councils are locked in disputes over future structures, were frequently referenced in conversations among delegates.

One told LGC he feared district councils’ services and funds would be “plundered” as county-wide unitaries are established in an attempt to address rising resource pressures, particularly in social care.

The suggestion by communities secretary Sajid Javid that the government would move to address the social care crisis is unlikely to reassure either counties seeking reorganisation to alleviate financial problems, or districts fearing they will be sacrificed, as austerity continues and demand for services grow.

One councillor even feared for her district’s future because of the loss of new homes bonus funding, top-sliced by the government and re-directed to social care in 2017-18.

Another delegate speculated that district councils may cease to exist in their current form altogether, as a “regionalist” agenda takes hold across the country in a flawed attempt to meet the challenges of Brexit.

But despite the significant and understandable angst over the future of two-tier local government, the conference was not short on positivity.

Speakers often struck a bullish tone on the important role districts play in supporting and developing communities.

Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) said districts were better placed to survive reorganisation than county councils as they had better relationships with their MPs. South Holland DC’s leader might be tested on that theory following Lincolnshire CC’s reorganisation referendum in May. 

Lord Porter also said the fact that Mr Javid and business secretary Greg Clark, as well as housing minister Gavin Barwell, agreed to attend the conference demonstrated the government’s recognition of the valuable role districts play.

Despite Lord Porter’s claim that devolution was “dead” in two-tier areas, Mr Javid insisted it was very much “live” and gave hope to districts craving a transfer of powers from Westminster by saying he would now be turning his attention to bids which were not included in the first round of mayoral elections due to take place in May.

Sir John Peace, chair of the Midlands Engine, enthusiastically highlighted the vital role of districts in providing the housing, infrastructure, and expertise needed to drive economic growth.

This view was repeated by councillors who spoke during a session on the impact of Brexit, who called for powers repatriated from Brussels to be devolved to districts to enable them to further support local growth.

A degree of concern over the future of district councils is likely to persist as long as the prospect of reorganisation remains an option – Mr Javid said he would seriously consider all “bottom-up” proposals for efficiencies and service improvement. But the conference is also likely to have given many of those attending cause for cautious optimism.

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