Councils could be forgiven for wondering if Government remains as committed to devolution and decentralisation of power, post Brexit, as it appeared to be before June’s vote.
What started well and seemed to have support at the highest level of Government, with George Osborne’s zealot like enthusiasm, doesn’t appear to have the same prominence with new cabinet figures, indeed some fear that the agenda could simply fizzle out.
Commercialisation strategy 1.0 was very much about trading and charging, using some surplus capacity or getting additional benefits from assets during the 1980’s. Fast forward to today and version 10.0.3 of that strategy is hugely different in scope and range.
Of course local authorities face huge financial challenges, not least an intention by Government to almost completely remove RSG by 2020, however impractical and unfeasible this may appear for many areas of the country.
The recent launch of the much delayed Childhood Obesity Strategy turned out to be something of a damp squib after being trailed as one of the most important health initiatives of our time.
With voluntary targets set to cut sugar in children’s food and drink by 5%, ultimately rising to 20% and a threat that Government will ‘consider alternative levers, if insufficient progress is being made’, the language of ‘should, might and we encourage’ is hardly going to promote a rush by suppliers in the food industry away from sugary drinks and junk food.
Greg Clark’s speech to the LGA, shortly before the Government reshuffle took place, showed that Government have begun to recognise that a disconnect exists between the prevailing orthodoxy in Westminster on public opinion and the realities of life at a community level.
Following the seismic events of the last few weeks, which have shaken the political establishment to its core, it’s going to take more than a few soundbites and platitudes to appease the public.
School meals funding in England currently comes from a variety of sources; free school meals and Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) are funded via local authorities with money from Government. For other students, parents or guardians are expected to foot the bill. Many local authorities continue to subsidise the cost of school meals, though the number able to do this is decreasing rapidly.
As is evident in APSE’s latest finance report, ‘Sustainable local government finance and liveable local areas’, it looks likely that by 2020, council combined current and capital spending will be at its lowest level since before 1948. It is increasingly evident that education catering may only survive in many local areas where it is capable of being able to fully recover the costs of the services. However, in spite of the parlous state of funding for school meals, it is an important contributor to the wider role of local authorities in public health.
APSE's report ‘Homes for all: Ensuring councils can deliver the homes we need’, was launched last week at Parliament. It was a timely reminder of the role local government could play in tackling the housing crisis facing the UK.
Unfortunately the passing of the hugely controversial Housing and Planning Act the day before was a reminder that the current Government don’t see the direct involvement of councils as part of the long term solution. Their preference is clearly to pursue the notion of a home owning democracy, irrespective of whether the public want this or the housing market can deliver it. This approach ignores the many groups in society most in need of affordable homes and who are unlikely to ever be in a position to achieve home ownership or funds for a starter home.
It is easy to imagine the catastrophic impact of a collapsed social care system. Frail old people left alone; a vulnerable child left without vital support. It is these very real threats that have kept alive the debate on funding social care. However less than 5% of our local population will experience social care, compared to the vast majority of local residents that rely upon on our neighbourhood level ‘liveability’ services.
On a daily basis virtually all citizens will walk in a well-lit local street. Many will drive on local roads, take their children to play in a local park, or go for a swim in a council-run pool. Local businesses benefit from public realm within local high streets. Residents will experience refuse and recycling collections provided directly to their own homes.
The Housing and Planning Bill, winging its way through Parliament is proving less than popular, whilst a series of amendments attempt to temper the worst excesses, there is a fundamental flaw in the Bill and that is the very policy premise upon which it is based.
For a number of years successive governments have sort to rely upon market driven solutions to the housing crisis, wedded to the idea of a ‘home owning democracy’. In reality, we have many people on low and middle incomes who will never be able to afford their own home and have no real interest in doing so, yet we have failed to support an affordable rental sector.
With the spending review completed and the annual financial settlements for local government across the UK done and dusted, we now know where budgets broadly stand, between now and 2020 and it’s taking local government expenditure to its lowest percentage of GDP since 1948.
The move to four year budgets in England will see significant further pain, on top of that already experienced, over the next couple of years, before a stabilisation in the latter years of that settlement. This of course optimistically assumes that there will not be a further recession during this period, high levels of house building will be achieved and the move to localise business rates will run smoothly and fairly.
Debate has been raging in recent weeks about whether the public have begun to notice the impact of cuts to local government services, following a recent opinion poll which suggested they hadn’t, and the Prime Ministers own intervention in his own local council’s approach to budget constraints.
Much focus is placed on the big spending budgets of adult and children’s services, ones that the public are often not regularly engaged with, ironically the services that they experience on a daily basis, like parks, public realm, refuse and leisure services are being eroded significantly.