England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

All bets are off


It’s traditional to kick off the New Year with a ‘predictions for the year ahead’ article, writes Jonathan Carr-West.

This year these have largely been replaced with articles about uncertainty and the impossibility of making predictions.

And indeed following a uniquely tumultuous year in British and international politics it does seem somewhat foolhardy to dust off the January crystal ball.

But even if we live in a post prediction world, it’s still worth looking at what we do and don’t know about 2017 for local government.

There are some fixed points. In May we’ll see local elections most notably for county councils and for the new city mayors.

Right now most people expect the conservatives to do well in the county elections and Labour to do badly. The big question concerns UKIP and the Lib Dems. Last time counties were up, UKIP made huge gains in seats. They ought to be in a good position post-Brexit but do they now lack purpose? The Lib Dems show signs of revival as the only explicitly anti-Brexit party, recent parliamentary by-elections suggest that appeal could do well in some parts of the country but this will be out to the test.

Mayoral elections are unlikely to offer many surprises in terms of the results but the key question will be about turn out. Very low numbers risk damaging the credibility of the project whereas an upsurge in public interest could give them real momentum.

There are also some background themes that we know will dominate the 2017 landscape. Brexit of course, and we can expect (surely?) the broad shape of this to become clearer over the course of the year.

For local authorities spending reductions and financial constraints will also continue to hit hard and despite the increased social care precepts announced in the finance settlement for many councils the funding crisis in adult social care will become an acute problem.

Social care, like housing requires some radical service transformation to make it sustainable but too many people talk about this while continuing to slice budgets and hope that something turns up. Could 2017 be the year in which we see new approaches to these services beginning to go mainstream?

There are also some big questions we don’t yet know the answers to. Is devolution over outside the major cities? How will the business rate retention pilots work out and what system of equalisation will we move towards post 2020?

And there are broader questions about democracy and community that could play out in 2017.

Last year, here and in the United States, we saw a populist rejection of ‘politics as usual’. What does that reveal about us as a society and what is the role of local government in overcoming divisions and giving people a real sense that they can shape the places they live in?

At LGiU we’ll be working on all of these big questions with policy themes that focus on finding sustainable solutions for local government, transformation of key public services and the revitalisation of local democracy.

And of course we’ll be working as always to keep our members informed with policy updates and analysis as well as our popular Daily News service.

All the time conscious that just like last year the biggest impact may come from the things we’re not expecting!

Jonathan Carr-West is LGiU’s Chief Executive.