There is a lot at stake for councils in this General Election. They play a key role in delivering economic growth, building homes, strengthening communities, protecting vulnerable people, and much more. And so what happens nationally matters locally.
With this in mind, local government organisations are setting out what they want to see from the next Government.
Local government currently faces an estimated overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2019/20. And the current Government has repeatedly made clear its plans to revolutionise the way the sector is funded. It hopes to scrap the local government grant by 2020, leaving councils to rely solely on business rates and council tax. For these reasons, funding is a high priority for councils in this General Election.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has called on the next resident of 10 Downing Street to ensure councils have the money they need to deliver the basic services - from collecting bins and filling potholes to providing care for the elderly and infirm - that keep communities going.
The LGA, who laid out their General Election ‘asks’ in a ten point plan, also urged the next Government to continue with reforms to allow local government to keep more of its business rates income. This, they said, ‘balances rewarding councils for growing their local economies but avoids areas less able to generate business rates income suffering as a result.’
‘The need for financial sustainability for local government is urgent,’ said LGA chairman Lord Porter. ‘Councils need fairer funding to continue to provide the full range of services that support their local communities.’
Representatives from district and county councils also said they wanted more ‘clarity’ on the question of business rates. Matthew Hamilton, the director of the District Council Network (DCN), noted that so far there had been a ‘trajectory’ towards the 100% retention of business rates for local authorities, a trajectory districts supported. But, he adds: ‘What district councils will need is an understanding of what the financial arrangements will be in relation to business rates sooner rather than later because 2019 is not far away.’
Philip Atkins, the vice-chairman of the County Council Network (CCN), speaking in more general terms, calls for a ‘fairer funding’ deal for counties. ‘CCN’s absolute priority will be on securing a fairer funding deal for counties,’ he says, ‘and ensuring that the new business rates system, if pursued by the incoming government, is able to promote sustainable growth, efficient service provision and self-sufficiency.’
Others have called for a complete overhaul of the way local authorities are funded. Adam Lent, the director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), pointing out that business rates retention had been ‘downgraded’ in the Conservative manifesto, calls for more ‘financial autonomy’ for councils and described the current local taxation system as ‘no longer fit for purpose’.
‘I think local councils should be given much more financial autonomy to raise their own funds but also to make decisions about the level of local tax,’ he says. ‘To tell you the truth, we need a major review of the nature of taxation, which is no longer fit for purpose, and we need to think about different, more modern, ways of taxing people locally. The [Conservative] manifesto is suggesting a review of business rates — whatever that means - but council tax itself is not fit for purpose.’
While local authorities are concerned about a general shortage of cash, it is the social care funding crisis that worries them the most. It is estimated social care services face a funding gap of £2.3bn by 2020 and so it is clear this needs to be dealt with by Whitehall.
As Margaret Willcox, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), puts it: ‘There is a need to deal with this funding gap and for any new Government to act urgently to give confidence to many thousands of people in this country and their families who need and depend on social care.’
Ms Willcox urges whoever wins the next General Election to support more people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible through specialist housing and the use of technology. She also stresses it is ‘vital’ for the Government to help the many millions of family carers who are struggling to get by.
On the question of domiciliary care, Ms Willcox says future charging arrangements must be fair. However, she also warned they must ‘guard against unintended consequences of encouraging people to delay gaining the help and support they need to prevent high cost hospital and care home admissions.’
The LGA of course, calls for the next Government to close the social care funding gap. But they are also calling for a ‘formal review’ of the entire system, involving local government leaders, with the aim of helping ‘secure a long-term sustainable solution’ to the crisis.
The social care crisis is not simply a question of more funds for authorities with social care responsibilities. Even those councils without such responsibilities are eager to see the crisis resolved because of the wider impact on the local government sector, a point the DCN’s Matthew Hamilton makes. Mr Hamilton also calls for a ‘greater focus on the role prevention methods can play in reducing demand in social care.’
Devolution, a topic the current Government has gone relatively quiet on since the departure of George Osborne, is naturally a high priority for the local government sector. The LGA calls for more devolution deals to be signed across all parts of the UK, ‘including in rural and non-metropolitan areas’. ‘Taking decisions over how to run local services closer to where people live is key to improving them and saving money,’ they say.
The next Government should also devolve ‘funding and responsibility for our £10.5bn a year national employment and skills system to local areas,’ the association adds.
The NLGN’s Adam Lent is hoping to see a ‘mindset shift on the part of the Government’ and central to this is more focus on devolving powers to local authorities. He called on the next occupants of Number 10 to bring a more ‘engaged outlook…and a much greater willingness to recognise the implicit importance of devolution.’
District councils also want to have more ‘clarity’ on the issue of devolution, said the DCN’s Matthew Hamilton. He urged the next Government to play a more decisive role in driving the devolution agenda but warned this should take the form of setting out principles rather than being too prescriptive.
‘It’s getting that balance, I think,’ he says, ‘It’s important there are parameters and principles applied to devolution but at the same time within those parameters and principles that might be set nationally there’s local flexibility.’
Pointing out the idea of directly-elected mayors appears to be losing favour in Westminster, Philip Atkins of CCN says county councils would be ‘setting out a new offer to the Government to secure ambitious county devolution deals now all the three main parties have dropped the requirement for a metro-mayor.’
The prospect of life outside of the European Union (EU) is on everybody’s mind. The NLGN says the local government sector is ‘worried’ about what the impact of Brexit will be. ‘The Government needs to start making reassuring noises and coming up with proper plans to help local government,’ says Adam Lent. ‘They’re worried about the council workforce, the impact on local business…those things really need to be addressed.’
Mr Lent also raises the issue of the repatriation of powers from Brussels to the UK. ‘They can’t just stop at Westminster,’ he says. ‘They’ve got to be devolved down further not just to devolved administrations but down to local government as well where appropriate.’
This point is also stressed by the LGA: ‘Brexit should not simply mean a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay.’ Local government should play a central role in deciding whether to keep, amend or scrap EU laws once they are converted into domestic law.
The prospect of ending the UK’s membership of the EU is also worrying to Welsh local authorities. Steve Thomas, the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), points out Wales is in receipt of £1.8bn worth of EU structural funds. ‘We’ve heard people say they’re going to make sure that they fill the gap and we don’t lose any money,’ he says. ‘Well, good. What’s that going to look like? You cannot overestimate the importance of that structural funding to Wales over the last 10 years.’
This is one area the LGA also touches on. Pointing out the fact that England has been allocated £5.3bn in EU regeneration funding by 2020, they urge the next Government to work with ‘local government to develop a fully-funded and locally-driven successor scheme for EU funding which gives local areas full control over spending.’
The LGA also wants the next Government to support councils in assuming their ‘historic role as a major builder of affordable homes.’ A recent survey of 166 local authorities in Britain revealed 98% of respondents characterised their need for affordable homes as either ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’. For this reason, the LGA wants the winners of the next election to give councils the freedom they need to build.
Local authorities need to be able to borrow to invest in housing, the association says. On top of this, they need to be allowed to keep 100% of the receipts from any homes they sell in order to replace them and reinvest in building new homes and infrastructure.
The DCN’s Matthew Hamilton seconds this point. He says districts should have ‘greater financial flexibilities’ to help them build more housing; specifically, he says they should be allowed to borrow more. He also calls for more support for ‘hard pressed’ planning departments and additional compulsory purchase powers.
This is an area that has received less coverage than Brexit, housing or social care, but children’s services are in dire straits. In England alone they will be facing a £2bn funding gap by 2020. ‘Children’s services has been allowed to drift as a policy area for seven years now,’ says Adam Lent. ‘This is a crisis in the making that’s emerging now.’
As one of their General Election asks, the LGA says the next Government should give ‘councils the resources they need to keep children and young people safe in the future.’ However, Mr Lent insists that much more needs to be done.
‘More importantly is a proper policy framework from central Government on where children’s services should be going [and] how early interventions should be being rolled out because that’s one of the big answers to the funding and demand problem,’ he says.
There should be ‘standard rules and norms across the country for when children should be taken into care and when they shouldn’t be,’ he continued. ‘It really is an area in crying need of some sort of proper national strategy.’
The current Government is committed to building 500 more free schools by 2020. These are state-funded academies set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious and voluntary groups, and 124 have already been opened since 2015.
However, local authorities are wary of this policy. Councils are legally responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places for all children to attend good schools, but they have no direct control of free school places or admissions policies.
For this reason, the LGA wants the next Government to ensure councils have a role in determining where new schools are created and a say on the type of school introduced to their area.
‘Councils want to ensure every child has a school place available to them,’ they say. ‘With 91% of maintained schools rated as either outstanding or good by Ofsted, councils must be seen as education improvement partners.’
Steve Thomas of the WLGA reiterates this point with regards to Wales. ‘We’ve been very successful in keeping education in local government and long may that be the case,’ he says. ‘We do not want to see academies in Wales. We do not want free schools. We want education by local education authorities.’
Local government transformation:
Radically reforming local government structures has been seen as a way of finding savings and making the delivery of services more efficient in a time of austerity. The NLGN’s Adam Lent welcomes this, but he urges the next occupants of Number 10 to focus more on transforming the culture.
‘There’s an obsession in Government - centrally and locally - with reorganisation and institutional reform and I think those things are important,’ he explains. ‘But what there isn't enough discussion about is the culture and the norms and the values of the organisations that deliver our public services locally. And I think central Government has a big roll in getting that message home.’
Mr Lent says the next Government should do more to encourage a ‘mentality that embraces creativity, collaboration, self-determination’. Without this, he insists, reorganisation will not be as effective as it could be.
Echoing a sentiment that many local government leaders across the UK can probably relate to, the WLGA’s Steve Thomas calls for more action when it comes to transforming the way councils are organised.
‘We’ve been talking about local government reorganisation in Wales since 2013. That’s a bloody long time to be talking about things. We need to get it sorted and we need to get certainty into the organisational future of the 22 authorities in Wales,’ he insists.