England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Squeezed and broken

Photo by Ricardo Viana on Unsplash

Last week we released the annual LGiU/MJ local government finance survey. You will have read about it in these pages. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that readers of this magazine will not have been hugely surprised by the results. We know that council funding is broken. Eight out of 10 of the people leading English local government tell us it is unsustainable.

This year we see that we are no closer to finding a solution. Councils are making do by increasing council tax as much as they can, increasing charging and dipping in to their reserves. And even with these desperate measures they are having to reduce spending; not just on vital place-shaping services like leisure, libraries and parks but in core life-saving areas like social care and children’s services.

We know that council funding is broken. Eight out of 10 of the people leading English local government tell us it is unsustainable.

This year we see that we are no closer to finding a solution. Councils are making do by increasing council tax as much as they can, increasing charging and dipping in to their reserves.

Even with these desperate measures they are having to reduce spending; not just on vital place-shaping services like leisure, libraries and parks, but in core life-saving areas, like social care and children’s services.

Almost by definition, that is not news to you. The people who read The MJ are the very people who contribute to our survey. But it is news to the wider world.

As it does every year, the survey received coverage in the national press: the FT, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, the Sun, the Daily Mail and also on ITV news.

The tone of the coverage was a little different this year: less focused on council tax increases, council salaries or cuts to bin collections and more sympathetic to the financial plight of local government and the pressures on statutory services.

It feels as if there is a growing realisation that something might be going wrong and that if it is going wrong it is not because of town hall blundering, but the product of a deeper, structural malaise.

The other striking thing about these results is how consistent they are across councils of all sizes and political affiliations.

I don’t want to create a false consensus or to ignore the diversity of local government – that is the whole point of it, after all – but it is striking that in the survey and in the interviews we conducted with council leaders for our podcast, some consistent messages emerged: we cannot carry on like this, something’s got to give.

How can we fix it? We need to be unapologetic about arguing that local government needs more money.

The Spending Review needs to see that vital local services given higher priority. But we also need to see greater local integration of budgets across the public sector so we can realise the savings from preventative services.

Most of all, we need clarity about how local government is going to be funded after 2020, so councils can plan for the future.

Now more than ever we need a thriving, resilient local government sector to compensate for political chaos and economic uncertainty at national level, but years of chronic under-funding has left local government on life support.

It is not too late and there is a moment right now that we can seize in the run-up to the Spending Review to make our case, but in order to do that we need, if not to speak with one voice, then at least to sing the same tune.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article first appeared in The Municipal Journal

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