England & Wales Brexit, Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Charting our own course

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

What does 2019 look like for local government? Well, I know what it should look like, writes Jonathan Carr-West.

2019 should be the year that we start to get some visibility on the way forward on some of our most intractable challenges.

The social care green paper should set out the direction of travel on social care funding and integration with health. The trifecta of the Fair Funding Review, Business Rate Retention and the Comprehensive Spending Review should give us a clear sight of how (and at what level) local government will be funded over at least the next four years.

So, while there will remain many challenges for local government we should at least be getting clearer on some of the parameters within which we will be operating.

How likely is this to happen? The challenge remains that government is completely consumed by Brexit. Ministers aren’t focused on anything else and capacity within the civil service is dropping almost by the day. (The Institute for Government report that some Whitehall departments are losing nearly a quarter of their staff each year)

The Social Care Green Paper is expected “soon” but then it has been expected “soon” for a very long time. The Fair Funding Review, Business Rate Retention and the Spending Review presumably have to happen, but the risk, I think, is that the energy already taken out of these processes mean that whatever finally emerges from them will feel more cobbled together, less robust and, crucially, have less longevity than they might have done had more political and intellectual capital been invested in them.

We will get an answer of sorts on local government funding but increasingly the sector fears it will not be the long-term one we need.

Meanwhile other pressures, particularly children’s services and housing will continue to grow.

And, of course, Brexit will continue (and continue and continue). It’s worth noting that while all options remain possible: a deal being agreed, exiting with no deal, extending article 50, a second vote and a general election, all of these options in different ways leave a huge amount of uncertainty still to be worked through.

For local government the core impacts of Brexit are likely to be the impact on work force (especially in care), the replacement or not of EU funding streams, the effect on the local economy and the impact on citizens’ feelings about and engagement with political process.

Whatever happens in parliament in the run up to 29th March there will be ongoing uncertainty about all of these issues.

So it’s not going to be the year in which things get clearer.

But there are some grounds for optimism. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of direction from central government councils and their local partners are taking it upon themselves to exercise the sort of place-based leadership that enables us to deploy scarce resources to maximum effect, to join up services and focus on outcomes for communities.

That’s hampered by a lack of money, by declining public trust and by non-conterminous public service geographies, but it is happening. It’s almost like a revival of the Total Place/ Community budgeting approach that was promoted the best part of a decade ago, but this time based on bottom up, local collaboration rather than top down directive.

There’s so much we can’t know, let alone control, that it somehow makes it easier for people to come together and do the things that are within their powers. And sometimes that turns out to be more than we first imagined.

Jonathan Carr-West is the LGiU’s Chief Executive.