‘May you live in interesting times’ is an oft-quoted (and apparently apocryphal) Chinese curse. It’s certainly one that was visited on local government in 2015, for better or for worse. The national political environment has shifted dramatically over the last twelve months. But what were the biggest stories in local government last year?
The devolution derby.
Local government devolution dominated the policy agenda since the announcement of the Greater Manchester deal in November 2014, and provided plenty of surprises. Few people outside Manchester realised the full scope of the plans until February, when the region was given responsibility for their £6bn health and social care budget. Meanwhile Cornwall’s July deal demonstrated that the offer reached beyond metro centres. 38 proposals were duly hurried together for the 4th September deadline, while others continued to work through their plans behind the scenes. The Devolution and Localism Bill failed to clarify the situation greatly, but in October there were audible gasps at the Conservative Party Conference as the Chancellor announced the full devolution of business rates. With further deals confirmed in the autumn budget and more to come, the buzz around devolution is set to continue into 2016.
The July Budget made it clear: having delivered £10 billion of savings in the three years from 2011/12, local authorities would have to find the same savings again in the next two years. The Treasury had already announced in June that the 2015/16 public health grant to local authorities would be reduced by £200 million. Meanwhile the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was published in July. So far, councils have succeeded in minimising the impact of cuts on their residents, but can this juggling act be maintained into 2016 and beyond?
Housing housing housing.
Nobody with even a passing acquaintance with news media last year could avoid the conclusion that we are in the middle of A Housing Crisis. And this sense of urgency has been reflected in the sheer number of initiatives launched in 2015. The pre-election pledge to extend Right to Buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants raised alarm in many local authority quarters, particularly regarding the proposal to fund the policy by selling off vacant higher value council houses. Councils took a hit in the July budget, when it was announced that social housing rents would be reduced by one per cent per year for four years. The Right to Buy commitment appeared in October’s Housing and Planning Bill, alongside provisions on starter homes, high-income social tenants, ‘rogue’ landlords, and more. Despite the broad range of the bill, there was remarkably little detail. The headline – wait for the regulation.
The best laid plans.
Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation’ was published by the Treasury just after the budget and contained a number of proposed planning reforms. This included intervention by the Secretary of State over the production of local plans where local authorities are judged to be too slow, a zonal system for brownfield land creating automatic permission for housing and a tighter planning performance regime intended to encourage faster planning application processing times. These all cropped up in October’s Housing and Planning Bill and have huge significance for the way planning operates.
What about social care?
2015 was also significant for what didn’t happen, namely the introduction of the cap on social care costs, which was postponed until 2020. Some breathed a sigh of relief, but the pressures on adult social care are becoming increasingly acute. The announcement of an increased minimum wage in July’s budget will only intensify this pressure.
There were of course been many many other events affecting local government last year: the publication of a national sports strategy, local elections and the impact of the refugee crisis to name but a few.
But perhaps the biggest untold story of 2015 is how local government quietly and without fanfare has adapted to change, finding new and innovative ways to deliver services more efficiently, engaging with their communities to minimise the impact of service reduction and setting out their stands for devolution.
2016 will be even tougher. Councils will continue to meet the challenges head-on, but the days in which frontline services could be protected by back-office efficiencies are long gone. Unless council leaders are willing to stand together to demand greater fiscal powers and autonomy as part of the next stage of devolution, 2016 could be the beginning of the end for many of local government’s traditional services and functions within the community.