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May must be near – councils are in the news

May must be near – councils are in the news

🕔22.Mar 2018

You know May is approaching, not with an upturn in the weather, but when local government starts to receive national attention, writes Kevin Johnson.

However, it’s not just the usual run in to polling on 3 May, but fundamental questions are being asked about how councils are funded.

Earlier this week, the Chamberlain Files was at the launch of Hansard Society’s Britain Votes 2017, one of the seminal studies that follows each General Election. Dr Eunice Goes (Richmond University) gave the assessment of Labour’s campaign.

The party’s stronger-then-expected performance was due, in part, she said to austerity fatigue setting in with the electorate as the campaign started and with the Westminster media beginning to focus less on the deficit and more on issues like housing.

The same might be said of councils, with more voters now putting their difficulties down to under or unfair funding from central Government.

Labour is expected to do well, with some predictions (including from Cabinet ministers) of a complete Tory wipe out in Birmingham and London.

Labour formally launched its local election campaign earlier today. Jeremy Corbyn said:

Enough of cuts to vital services that hurt local communities; enough of cuts to schools, hospitals and local policing; enough of library and youth centres closures, enough of leaving elderly and disabled people without essential care; and enough of failed privatisations that suck funds out of public services so a few can make a profit.

However, Mr Corbyn effectively kicked off the campaign at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. He asked the PM if the failure of Northamptonshire County Council was down to Tory leaders nationally or locally.

It was one of his more impressive PMQ openings and one which Theresa May was unable to respond with a direct answer.

There is a growing, but not complete, consensus that councils are underfunded and that new ways of financing local government – along with more freedoms – needs proper debate.

There are, though, two key problems for those pressing the case for local government.

Just as with Northamptonshire and as we know with Birmingham, a case can be made about cuts having gone too far and demographic and other pressures increasing demand on council services. But, inspectors and commissioners are able in these and other town halls to highlight significant governance, management, financial and cultural failings.

Arguably, local government would be in a stronger place if they had their own Council Houses in order.

Martin Reeves, who acted as chief executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) until Deborah Cadman’s arrival, has a new role to complement his day job as chief executive of Coventry city council. He gave his first interview as the new finance lead for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers (SOLACE) to the Local Government Chronicle this week.

He said the local government sector’s response to the financial crisis facing councils has “not been as strong as it should’ve been.”

Mr Reeves said local government’s disparate groups need to have some “really tough, mature conversations” about the way the sector should be financed in the future, and have those sooner rather than later.

Now is the time for more magnanimous, joined up story-telling on behalf of the sector.

That includes having some really tough, mature conversations about distribution, about the fact some arguments about certain levels tax and business rates retention in different parts of the country will have a differential impact than others.

It’s not in a few years’ time, it is now. It is up to us as a sector to say there is a common narrative about our places, about austerity and about it eroding local democracy because there are almost no choices left for us to be made [about how services are funded].

Mr Reeves alluded to the problems in having SOLACE, the Local Government Association and others all trying to represent the sector.

Earlier today, the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a report on the funding of adult social care.

It said a policy to axe general grant funding for town halls in 2020 will leave councillors forced to choose between funding social care or other services

The think tank said local authorities will depend only on council tax and business rates for the vast majority of their general funding, which is unlikely to keep pace with demand.

It said that even with a tax hike of 4.5% a year, councils would be spending half their budgets on social care by 2035 – up from 30% today.

Other services such as children’s services, housing and bin collection would see real-terms cuts.

IFS Associate Director David Phillips said:

With increasing demand and costs, council tax and business rates revenues are very unlikely to be enough for councils to fund both adult social care services and the other services they are expected to provide.

The National Audit Office recently said the financial health of councils across England was getting worse and quick fixes like council tax hikes and emergency cash injections were not helping.

Locally, the campaign for the first set of all-out elections for Birmingham city council is warming up.

As Chamberlain Files has previously warned, Birmingham and West Midlands Labour figures are keen to adopt the ‘fake news’ tag to take swipes at Conservative Mayor, Andy Street.

Was it Andy Street who won the Commonwealth Games, or Ian Ward and Labour?

Well, the answer is probably both. The Mayor certainly used his ambassadorial skills and earned the confidence of Government to make the financial case stack up. But, it was sports mad Ian Ward who championed and led the bid from a long way out.

Warring Politicians might also give more credit to the likes of outgoing Birmingham chief executive Stella Manzie and West Midlands Growth Company boss Neil Rami who, with many others, were fundamental to Birmingham crossing the line, albeit without anybody on their shoulder.

West Midlands Labour – and in particular MPs Jack Dromey and Ian Austin – have been keen to throw around accusations about the cost of the Mayoral office as well as the fact it is Andy Street rather than Ian Ward who will be on Australia’s Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games handover.

You can say many things about Mayor Street, but lazy is not one of them. We are reasonably confident he won’t be taking too much time on “sandy beaches, subtropical climate, nightlife and theme parks.”

As Labour’s Cllr Spencer pointed out, surely a Labour Mayor would want an office that was capable of achieving something if elected in 2020.

Labour doesn’t happen to mention that the Chief Constable is also on the trip, we understand. Talking of police, the Conservatives are mounting a major campaign against police station closures, notably in Solihull. It’s also a useful way to attack Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson who has sanctioned the closures whilst fighting his own campaign against reduced funding of police from central Government.

As Theresa May has learned this week, arguments about police funding and formula can stray into the area of misleading.

Meanwhile, Birmingham Conservatives have launched their strategy to tackle homelessness if they take control of the council on 3rd May.

Leader of the Conservative Group Cllr Robert Alden said:

The Government have provided over £1bn in funding up to 2020 to help eradicate rough sleeping and the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands has led the way in securing additional funding to pilot a Housing First approach in the region and to bring organisations together to help tackle the homelessness cycle.

We would work with the West Midlands Mayor, the Government, the Region and local organisations to ensure that Birmingham becomes a city where no one has to spend a night on the street.

Promises include building 3,000 new houses each year by 2022 to help increase the supply of housing across Birmingham, “building on the success of the Conservative created” Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BHMT).

Cllr Gary Sambrook added:

In the 21st Century, in a City that the Labour Council decided could afford the Commonwealth Games it is unacceptable to have some people left with no choice but to sleep rough. Our strategy for tackling homelessness and rough sleeping will ensure that those that need our support get it.

Meanwhile, official national figures revealed today there were almost 70,000 children living in temporary accommodation at the end of 2010, when Conservatives entered Government, compared with 120,500 at the end of last year.

Meanwhile, the overall number of households in temporary accommodation has shot up by 64% in the same period – from 48,000 to almost 80,000.

So, we can look forward to more fake news and figures flying around, but after the electoral dust has settled a more grown up debate about how local government is financed will be long overdue.

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