England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Time to flex some local muscle?

The political landscape is changing almost hourly and that perhaps offers the potential to change the local-central relationship writes Jonathan Carr-West.

As the election results came through on Friday morning we wrote that they were likely to exacerbate what was already a period of intense uncertainty for local government. As Lauren argued, there were significant questions before the election around the future direction and momentum of issues such business rates retention, social care and devolution.

These are precisely the issues around which there has been growing tension between the government and councils, including Conservative run councils for the last couple of years.

Council leaders are concerned that they will not be able to fund a growing social care bill. They fear that business rates retention is an insufficient fix for a local government finance system no longer fit for purpose. They want some of the powers and funding that the cities have enjoyed in their devotion deals but without some of the governance strings.

With the obvious and notorious exception of social care, the Conservative manifesto had little to say about these issues. On the face of it we must assume that the pre-election policy direction remains in place (especially as Sajid Javid is still in DCLG) in practice it is unclear how far these issues will be a priority for a government that is struggling to put a legislative program in place. This matters because these issues are only growing more urgent with every month that passes.

But one of the aspects of the current situation which has not been much commented on over the weekend has been the now stark discrepancy between the Conservative performance in the local elections last month and in the general election. While the national party finds itself unable to form a parliamentary majority, Conservative local government has an enhanced mandate especially in the counties and in the four new metro mayoralties they won.

Could this change the balance of power within the central local relationship? If Conservative local government looks to flex its muscles on the issues it is already unhappy about will a weakened central government be forced to respond?

Certainly, local government needs to take this possibility seriously. If ever there was a time for the sector to come together with a clear set of demands for how to move forward, it is surely now.

Jonathan Carr-West is LGiU’s Chief Executive.

LGiU members can read our latest post-election policy briefing Hung Parliament: what it is and what it could mean (LGiU members only).