Local authorities constantly face changing circumstances and new demands on their services and 2018 looks set to be no different. Here are my predictions for the top 10 issues for local government in 2018.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
Described by the Information Commissioner as 'a game changer for everyone', the new data protection framework will apply from 25th May 2018. Local authorities should act now to ensure they will be compliant, as they may need to make significant changes to their procedures, policies and IT systems. They will need to establish a legal basis for processing data, recognising that the ground that it is in their legitimate interest, often used by data controllers in the past, will not apply when the processing is carried out in the performance of a public authority’s tasks but that there is a basis when processing is necessary for the exercise of any functions of a public nature exercised in the public interest.
They will need to review the privacy notices that they give to data subjects about their data processing activities to ensure that they reflect the detailed requirements of the GDPR.
Their systems will need to enable them to allow individuals to exercise rights under the GDPR relating to their data, such as the right to obtain rectification and the right to be forgotten.
They will need to appoint a data protection officer, with expert knowledge of data protection, who will provide advice on the GDPR and monitor compliance.
As we approach the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in March 2019, local authorities will need to prepare for the legal, constitutional and practical consequences. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that EU law which forms part of domestic UK law will continue to have effect when the UK leaves the EU and will also give ministers time-limited powers to make regulations to address deficiencies in retained EU law.
Local authorities will need to ensure that they are familiar with the legislation which applies as at the date of the UK’s exit from the EU and will need to be alert to any changes which the Government decides to make in the future.
Local government reform in Wales
The National Assembly for Wales is expected to publish a Bill in 2018 to reform local government in Wales. The Assembly has moved away from its previous proposed approach of reducing the number of local authorities in Wales to eight or nine, as proposed in the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill which the Welsh Government published in 2015. Instead there is a focus on local authorities working together, with the 2017 White Paper on local government reform proposing that some functions should be delivered on a regional basis. This will require Welsh local authorities to consider the ways they work together.
Local authorities need to prepare for a changed system of finance, in which they will have full retention of business rates but will no longer receive the central revenue support grant. The new system will provide opportunities for local authorities to control their own finances but will be challenging in areas where income from business rates may be relatively low.
The need for housing remains high and local authorities will need to make full use of their powers and resources to meet the needs of their communities. Local authorities in England will await with interest further developments from the UK Government’s White Paper Fixing our broken housing market. The White Paper made several interesting proposals for actions to stimulate availability of housing, including amending the national planning policy framework, issuing a new general disposal consent.
The White Paper also saw the right to buy as something which supports affordable home ownership. This contrasts with the position in Wales, where legislation is being made by the National Assembly which will abolish the right to buy. The legislation reflects concern over the reduction in social housing stock as a result of people exercising the right to buy. It is intended to protect the supply of social housing in the circumstances of a high level of demand and a shortage of supply. It will be interesting to see how effective these different approaches prove to be in improving availability of housing.
Local authorities dealing with limited resources and increasing demand for social care services will need to find the most efficient ways of working whilst complying with their statutory requirements and the expectations of their communities.
A briefing published by charity Age UK in 2017 predicted that the numbers of people in England aged 85 or over is expected to double by 2036 and reported that by their late 80s more than one in three people have difficulty undertaking five or more tasks of daily living unaided. This means that the cost of funding social care is set to rise and local authorities will be faced with the struggle of staying within their means without failing in their obligations or compromising the quality of the services they provide or commission.
As well as the general scrutiny that local authorities face from the public and their auditors, formal scrutiny arrangements in local government are under the spotlight, with a report from the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee calling for a complete culture change in local government scrutiny. The report recommends that scrutiny committees should report to full council meetings rather than to a local authority’s executive. It also suggests that the statutory scrutiny officer role needs to be strengthened.
Regional economies and City Deals
City deals are encouraging economic growth in various regions of the United Kingdom, by providing funding and devolved powers. Since the first wave of city deals was launched in 2011, over 20 city deal arrangements have been developed or are being in England and there are two in Wales. Local authorities have an important role to play in using these arrangements to the best effect in their areas.
Although local authorities have a wide range of powers, 2017 has seen some significant legal challenges to their use. For example, in the case of R v AB, CD and EF  EWCA Crim 534, a local authority was found to have acted outside the power in section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972 in bringing a prosecution because it had not shown that this was expedient for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of the area. This showed the importance of satisfying all the requirements of statutes which confer powers and the need for local authorities to make sure that activities they undertake to generate income are within their powers.
Local authorities will need to be resourceful in finding innovative ways to use their powers most effectively whilst staying within the law.
Several areas will have council elections in 2018 and some will also have mayoral elections. Despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, 2017 has shown that we can never really be sure when the next general election may be called. Local authority officers are experienced and effective in running elections but we should not underestimate the demands an election year makes on them.
There will be much to occupy the attention of local authorities in 2018 but no doubt they will address all issues effectively and continue to deliver effective public services.
Tiffany Cloynes is partner and head of the public services team at Geldards