England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Election viewpoint: the General Election and the future of local government

The sacred cow of the General Election has been the NHS, with parties falling over each other to make bigger and brasher promises.  LGiU count correspondent Rob Foster wonders what the fate of other public services will be after May 7 and urges local government to make its case.

So there’s just over a week to go now until Election Day and the reckoning and political narratives are well established. Long-term economic plans, protecting the NHS, dealing with the deficit, ending austerity and increasing housing supply are the interchangeable mantras heard each day from almost every side. It has felt like a curiously cautious campaign, with as much emphasis from the major parties on not scaring the horses as on providing hope, inspiration or new directions.

Central to the groupthink on public spending is the NHS. I’ve written before on the sacred cow that is, in Nigel Lawson’s famous phrase, “the closest thing the English have to a religion”. The election campaign has evidenced this more than ever, if the party pledges are anything to go by. The Conservatives promise at least an extra £8bn per year by 2020, as do the LibDems who add an extra £500m per year for mental health services. Labour promise £2.5bn of extra funding for the NHS per annum, 8,000 new GPs and 20,000 more nurses. UKIP pledge 8,000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses, 3,000 more midwives and £3bn per year extra funding. The SNP want £9.5bn extra for Britain, with £2.5bn of that specifically for Scotland. And so it goes on.

No party wishes to commit political suicide by being seen as anti-NHS, even those who disagree with the way it is structured; and so the arms race of NHS spending pledges continues exponentially.

Compare this to the parties’ stances on other public services. Yes the (current) big three have all committed (in different ways) to greater devolution of powers to local areas. Education remains an area of focus, but with the emphasis on how schools are administered and what the curriculum should contain. New housing is vital, but local government’s role in how this might be delivered is barely mentioned, beyond the Conservatives’ focus on the sale of existing council properties to help fund the extension of Right to Buy.

The conclusion I find hard to avoid is that when it comes to influencing the debate, local government has largely failed. Within the sector it is widely recognised that councils have, in most cases, adapted to post-2010 austerity well. Perhaps too well. Unlike the health sector, local government does not cry out for more money and has not warned of imminent disaster if the funding doesn’t come. The sector has raised objections and sounded warnings, but then generally got on with making the best of a bad situation. This is laudable, but the truth of the matter is that whilst politicians of all stripes are falling over themselves to “protect” the NHS, local government is seen as an easy target for more reductions in funding.

The fragmented nature of local government is a part of this. The LGA has a crucial role to play, but the competing claims of Counties, Districts and Metropolitan areas mean that the sector often does not speak with a united voice. This makes it all the more easy for national politicians to ignore or override their local counterparts. In the area of public health, Michael Marmot’s “Social Determinants of Health”, and councils’ central role in addressing these issues, are widely acknowledged. But does this message get reflected in the discourse of national politics? Local government, ironically, is not a vote winner. Alongside this, the sector’s complexities make it difficult for the general public to know what councils do, never mind how they do it. In the current climate fomented by certain politicians, public opinion of local government is weighed down by inaccurate perceptions of largesse and “gold plated pensions”.

This being the case, the election will certainly provide significant further challenges for the sector as a whole. But it does also afford the possibility of opportunities. Whichever party, or parties, holds power after 7th May will be aware that despite the election rhetoric, all public services face an era of economic, technological, demographic and social change. The challenge for local government is to convince the politicians and the public that we are a fundamental part of the solutions to these changes.

Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk