Councils could have to fight to keep their responsibilities for children’s services if large numbers of services continue to be judged as failing, Local Government Association chair Lord Porter has warned.
Speaking at the Association for Public Service Excellence conference on Thursday, Lord Porter shared his impressions of latest government thinking on key issues including devolution, business rates retention and the Grenfell response.
He revealed that the LGA would be stepping up its campaigning around children’s services, which he described as a bigger pressure than adult social care on council budgets.
Earlier this week children’s services at Croydon LBC were rated inadequate by Ofsted, as are almost a quarter of services in England. A further 45% are judged to require improvement. Lord Porter said there was a risk if too many failures emerged “too soon” some MPs would make the “argument” to “completely take it away [from councils] and put it into some sort of children’s national body”.
Lord Porter predicted councillors would be “in for a very tricky time” in relation to the public sector pay cap as even if government lifts it “they’re not going to put in extra money”. He warned this could lead to staff reductions.
More positively, Lord Porter said the government recognises it has to take action on adult social care, predicting this would be one of the few issues not related to Brexit to be given ministers full attention.
He also said that contrary to comments he made back in February, his sense now was that devolution is no longer “dead in the water”.
“There may well be some new devolution deals but I don’t think they’ll be as ambitious as the ones we have seen already and that will be for members to determine whether the pain of working nicely together is worth it.”
The “unresolved question of reorganisation” was also likely to be an issue in the coming months, Lord Porter said. Of the two-tier areas awaiting a government decision on their reorganisation plans Dorset and Buckinghamshire were the most likely to get a decision, he predicted, however “neither of those deals [will] go through”.
“The parliamentary majority is near non-existent and I don’t think the government will push them through,” he added.
He said there would still be moves towards 100% business rates retention and said the LGA would be arguing that at least £6bn if not all of the additional £13bn that becomes available goes to plug the existing local government funding gap.
“If they are insisting on other duties we’ll be looking at things that add value to our communities, like the skills agenda,” he said.
Lord Porter also warned the recent events in Birmingham City Council, where the council and unions representing refuse workers have been engaged in a long-running dispute, could tarnish the reputation of local government amongst MPs which would be bad news for the sector, already reeling from the criticism it has faced in the wake of Grenfell Tower fire.
However, Lord Porter said the government had laid a disproportionate amount of blame at local government’s door and addressing the issue of flammable cladding on public and private sector buildings would not be straightforward. “The longer this has gone on, the worse the problem has got. More and more problems have come out of the wood work,” he said.
“The government have clearly had local government in the frame when we have less affected buildings than [housing associations] and they have got less than the private sector.”
Expressing sympathy for the communities secretary, he said Sajid Javid had “probably picked up his workload at the worst time to be secretary of state for DCLG”
He added: “I think there is a number of people in central government that still believe we can squeeze more out of what we do… members you’re going to have to bend the ear of your MP considerably harder and more painfully so they know when your council says it can’t take anymore they mean it.”