As we await the recovery and devolution white paper from Government, it will be interesting to see if the summer speeches from ministers that invariably promised ‘putting an empowered local government at the heart of the economic recovery’, will be borne out in reality.
Successive governments have denuded local authorities of powers, finance and resources; stripping the sector back to an emaciated shadow of its former self. If ministers really want councils to play a key role in the recovery of the nation then we need to see more than warm words, we need to see a full-blown rehabilitation of local government in the national psyche.
To do this there needs to be proper recognition of the role of the local authority as the undisputed leader of place, the key actor in helping to deliver a better tomorrow for local communities. When we take the issue of planning for example – a responsibility that is fundamental to driving better outcomes for local people - powers need to be restored not reduced. How can you steer and stimulate a local economy or transform town centres at the very heart of local place if there is continual deregulation of your planning powers?
The upcoming comprehensive spending review represents a great opportunity for ministers.
The pandemic has shone a light on what we already know: good quality housing, which is integrated with good quality design, through the prism of place-making, makes a huge contribution to the health and well-being of local communities. We are also all too aware that poor housing has a detrimental effect on health and health outcomes. This is why APSE is hugely supportive of the campaign for a Healthy Homes Act to ensure that its principles are enshrined in law.
APSE and the TCPA recently completed our sixth joint housing research collaboration, which identified many problems within the current system and made recommendations for improvement. In ‘At a crossroads, building foundations for healthy communities’ we called for:
COVID – 19 has had a polarising effect on society, organisations and individuals within them, in so many ways. At one extreme we have people who want to argue that staff and services should all shift today into cyberspace, never to have human contact ever again, whilst at the other we have those who believe that this sort of leap of blind faith will lead to the biggest waste of time, resources and effort since preparations for the millennium bug. The answer of course probably sits somewhere in between.
Faced with the prospect of a potential return to mass unemployment in the coming months and with fewer resources than ever, local councils are going to have some major decisions to make to prioritise what little they have available, to ensure better outcomes for local communities.
A hugely important invest to save opportunity that delivers on so many cross-cutting issues is to give some renewed focus to tackling the climate emergency, whilst attempting to build back better and create a sustainable local economic recovery. There are a number of ways we can do this which create significant numbers of jobs, including apprenticeships, boost local supply chains and deliver significant energy savings, whilst alleviating fuel poverty for many.
The current crisis created by COVID-19 has forced us all to think deeply about what we value in our everyday lives and when push comes to shove, our own health and the health of our families comes into sharp focus. Perhaps therefore it’s about time that the rich health benefits that local government parks services bring to society receive much greater appreciation.
A huge emphasis has been placed by UK Governments during lockdown on focusing on the publics’ physical health and mental well-being. Local authority parks services have demonstrated, throughout the current crisis that they have been at the forefront of public health for local people and have an intrinsic part to play in the short and long-term recovery of local communities. The return on investment, by local and national governments, in parks services is colossal.
Over the past few months many have turned to parks as their daily release from the pressures of lockdown, not only to provide some peace and tranquillity in the fresh air, but to also give them their much-needed daily exercise, boosting their immune system in the process. Much has been made of a potential obesity crisis fuelled by the recent period of inactivity, however parks have helped mitigate against this and can continue to do so, by supporting active lifestyles.
Could the impact of COVID-19 on local authority finance be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back for many frontline services already emaciated over the past decade by austerity?
APSE has written extensively in the past about budget reductions which have seen authorities lose 60p in the pound from funding provided to them by Government since 2010. This has had a hugely disproportionate impact on the frontline neighbourhood services that the public value the greatest. These huge cuts, compounded by significant rises in demand, across council activities, have squeezed the life out of these often non-statutory services.
With the demand for social care budgets increasing hugely in the current period this will squeeze other frontline services even further. And whilst the public recognise the importance of social care to many of the most vulnerable and needy people at present, the vast majority don’t experience social care in their daily lives.
APSE’s own public opinion polling carried out with Survation shows that most people really value refuse collection, public realm, parks, roads and street cleaning. It is my belief that this love of the frontline has only been enhanced over the past few weeks when these weary warriors have stepped up to the plate yet again and delivered, when everyone else has been placed in a state of suspended animation by lockdown. It would be a real tragedy for local government if this greatly increased recognition of the role it plays in keeping society functioning in the toughest of circumstances is quickly lost by a failure to fund properly these very services in the future.
As we approach the Easter weekend local authority’s parks services will be in sharp focus and will be bracing themselves for what will be a major test of public behaviour as we reach the peak of the curve of COVID-19.
APSE carried out a survey of council parks managers on 8 April to assess what is happening on the ground, with over 90 responses received from across the UK.
To date Government advice has been to keep parks open to allow for exercise, so long as people comply with social distancing guidelines. The survey shows that almost all parks and urban spaces remain open and almost all are keeping at least some of their country parks accessible at present.
In relation to social distancing 79% are saying that nearly all visitors are observing social distancing. Some are experiencing some problems with certain groups, with 63% saying groups of youths have been occasionally problematic, although smaller percentages saying issues have also arisen with exercise groups, cyclists and families.
It is inarguable that the last decade in local government was tough financially. Every public policy initiative, every council budget was seemingly dominated by relentless austerity. That has not gone away. However, with climate emergency declarations by local councils now standing at 65% coverage across the UK it would appear that this, not austerity, is our zeitgeist for the next decade.
Declaring an emergency is only a statement of intent; a recognition that urgent action is needed. Some have found that their passionate pledges in the council chamber can give birth to a much starker reality. Action on climate change is devoid of quick fixes. As a first step councils need to establish what is within the scope of their declaration. Is this just about decarbonising councils’ services or is it broader? Looking at supply chains or sub-regional economies? And what pledges can be made about those areas where the council is not simply the sole-trader such as municipal airports or transport infrastructure which invokes national agencies? When we start to peel back the covers issues may seem insurmountable. But this is not the case if action is properly planned.
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.