The country recently elected a new parliament to Westminster, so what will the public want to see at the top of ministerial in-trays?
It’s very timely that Survation has just completed APSE’s annual polling of public opinion on local government services. What it finds is that satisfaction with services is starting to drop and people are noticing a decline in their locality. They are also saying they want to see more of the tax that they pay given to councils to spend in their local area.
If the new Government want to demonstrate that the decade associated with austerity has passed then the public clearly want to see visible improvements across their neighbourhood services. This means investment across everything from public realm to affordable housing. Social care also remains important in public opinion but this is balanced against these wider priorities.
A consistent trend is that trust is continuously increasing in councils and councillors to get decisions correct about their local area and to deliver services directly to local people.
Management of frontline services in local government has changed dramatically over the last decade in terms of scope, complexity and span of control – has this been truly recognised in organisational status, by professional institutes or by training providers?
APSE recently completed a review of the skills required for 21st century parks management for MHCLG’s Parks Action Group and what became obvious almost immediately was that austerity has reshaped the competency framework requirements for such roles at a rapid rate. Traditional parks management skills requirements could have been identified on one flower with seven petals with each petal a skill, fast forward a decade and they now require five flowers with the same array of petals.
Will new Housing Minister Esther McVey succeed where her predecessors have failed and finally make significant inroads to solving the housing crisis? Only if she recognises that 100 years on from the Addison Act local authorities must once again play a key role in delivering quality affordable housing.’
There are three main areas of Government housing policy that APSE has called for action on in our latest research, with the Town and Country Planning Association, ‘Housing for a fairer society’.
The first issue is delivering and retaining genuinely affordable housing. A good start would be for Government to reinstate a definition of affordability that is linked to income. Government also needs to provide significantly more direct grant for social rental homes. It should also suspend the right to buy in England as happened in Scotland and Wales, where the numbers of council houses are increasing, for the first time in a generation. In the meantime, Councils should be allowed to keep 100% of their right to buy receipts to reinvest in building. The current validity test also needs reformed in order to close loopholes that allow developers to avoid contributing affordable housing.
The prevailing issue that has exercised the minds of those in local government for the last decade has been dealing with the impact of austerity. Whilst rumours of its demise may be somewhat premature it is likely to be overtaken by something that may have an even more fundamentally profound impact on councils, dominating almost every decision they make over the next decade – that of climate change.
Whilst many councils are alert to this agenda, with dozens declaring climate change emergencies, particularly in response to high profile public protests by young people, it is easy to move the date you expect to be carbon neutral forwards by ten years or so, but unless you focus on deliverables then achieving such aspirations could prove to be difficult in practice. The clock is ticking. There is an urgent need to move beyond strategising and rhetoric to making significant progress.
For those MJ readers of a certain age they will no doubt remember the magical world of Mr Benn; as a spaceman, a zookeeper, a cook or a diver. The adventures were always captivating and of course he received his souvenir medal once he returned through the changing room at the fancy-dress shop where his adventures commenced from. Now you may of course be wondering what Mr Benn’s has to do with local government? Well the current crop of chief officers, those who report directly to chief executives, often find themselves in a Mr Benn like world.
Local government was once a place of Weberian style municipal discipline; clearly defined roles and with that silo working, along delineated professional functions. Planners did planning. Engineers did Highways. Mr Benn would have stayed bedecked in his bowler hat! Today’s local authority chief officers, not only look different from that bygone era but are increasingly working under different guises; changing costumes to suit the adventures of the day.
It’s time for an honest conversation about tax in the UK. Successive Governments have pledged not to increase the tax burden on the public in their manifestos and then once in power they put in place policies that do the opposite.
Just look at the shift that has taken place in tax revenues since austerity started. In 2010, local government’s core spending power of £50B was around 80% funded from local tax yield with a further 20% subsidy from direct taxation. Fast forward to 2019 and the £46B or so that local government will receive in core spending power in the coming year, is outstripped by the £52B that will be raised in local taxation. Local taxation is now clearly subsidising national spending.
Local people and local businesses are now paying significantly more in council tax and business rates for the services they receive at a time when many of the neighbourhood services, that determine the look and the feel of the place, are being decimated. Add to this the fact that fees and charges have also either been introduced or increased, in order to try and hold local services together and we really are testing people’s patience.
Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer and that definitely applies when it comes to all things Brexit. I was recently asked what I thought the impact of Brexit would be on local government frontline services and after a pause and a few caveats I was able to give an answer which sounded something akin to the famous Donald Rumsfeld response about ‘known knowns and unknown unknowns.’
We already know that the devaluation of the pound following the referendum has increased the cost of UK imports like construction materials for housing and highways, plant and equipment for fleet, refuse and grounds maintenance; food ingredients for school meals and even chemicals and cleaning supplies for janitorial responsibilities.
Reading the recent announcements from Public Health Minister, Steve Brine, about the new trailblazer programme to tackle childhood obesity I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is any joined up policy thinking taking place on domestic matters whilst the shadow of Brexit remains looming large over the country.
Whilst any new money is welcomed by local government, alongside the ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, a competition where local authorities can bid to be one of five winners who will receive £100k a year for three years to come up with innovative ideas around active lifestyles and healthy eating, isn’t going to push back the tide on the problem when a tsunami of cuts is coming in the other direction and overwhelming public health initiatives; closing parks; forcing greenspace sell offs; and causing significant reductions in accessible sports and leisure facilities.
Another week, another warning. If we don’t address the funding pressure building in the system around adults and childrens’ social care services then local governments ability to fulfil its more general responsibilities, to its communities, will implode.
So will Government address this impending catastrophe through new fiscal raising proposals in the imminent social care green paper or deal with it in next year’s comprehensive spending review? Or will we remain like mindless zombies on a relentless march to fulfil the predictions contained within various versions of the graph of doom? That money will run out for anything other than statutory services and even then such protection will be severely tested.
Many ingredients go into making a community a place where people are proud to live and work, so is there a danger of eroding local government’s ability to place-shape effectively as a result of a series of policy decisions and funding cuts?
Previous governments’ strategies for neighbourhood renewal seem a distant memory, alongside the levels of accessible funding that went alongside them. Whilst criticism existed of approaches being overly centralist, ‘funding with strings attached’, local government remains at the mercy of central government policy decisions and delivering budget cuts is the only thing in which it seems to have more freedom.