Many commentators are predicting that next week’s Budget will be a relatively low key affair, providing more of a pointer to the direction of future travel rather than a wholesale policy shake-up. Given the lack of wriggle-room afforded by the sluggish economy and the deficit reduction plans they might be right.
That said, the chancellor is still in a good position to deliver on some of the key asks we put forward on behalf of local government. He can offer every place a local growth deal. He can listen to Lord Heseltine and help local areas generate growth by giving them access to a single pot for investment gathered from across Whitehall departments. He can help us address the chronic housing shortage by lifting the borrowing cap from the Housing Revenue Account. And he can change Treasury rules to enable local government to capitalise one-off revenue expenditure.
These would be important steps but there is no denying that we need to make the case too in the spending review for 2015-16 and the next comprehensive spending review beyond that. Local government has borne the brunt of cuts across the current spending period. More of the same will have a devastating impact on local services. That was clearly demonstrated in the funding outlook report we produced last year. Despite the clear implications of our argument it will not be enough for us to simply demand more money and call for other parts of the public sector to take the cuts. We need to place local government at the indispensable heart of public service delivery and we need to demonstrate how the chancellor can protect our funding.
Work has already begun in earnest. In particular the community budgets pilots have demonstrated that pooling funding across government agencies and putting local areas in charge can improve services and save more than £4bn per year across the public sector as a whole. The idea is gaining momentum across Whitehall. We are also seeing increasing recognition of our pivotal role in delivering growth.
We’ve made a good start but the job is far from finished. I am currently travelling around the country and meeting with leaders and chief executives to talk about how we take this work to the next level. I am confident that when the time comes we will be in a position to make the chancellor an offer that he can’t refuse.
Sir Merrick Cockell is chairman of the LGA