England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

What alternatives are we offering?

Image by Piero Di Maria from Pixabay

For local government, as for all of us, these are strange and perplexing times.

Heading in to the General Election there was significant uncertainty around the future direction and momentum of key policy issues such business rates retention, social care and devolution.

These are precisely the challenges around which there has been growing tension between the Government and councils, including Conservative-run councils, for the last few years.

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

The only one of these issues to get any serious consideration in the Conservative manifesto was social care. And we all know how that turned out.

Since the election the uncertainty level has ratcheted up a level or two.

The Department for communities and Local Government (DCLG) has briefed that the rollout of 100% business rate retention is suspended with no current plans for its reintroduction. The 100% retention pilots will continue, as will the fairer funding review, which does not require legislation, and there will be a new consultation published next month.

This is hardly a surprise. There has been limited enthusiasm for this policy since its architect George Osborne left government and the Brexit squeeze on the legislative agenda, combined with the Government’s weak majority, meant no-one expected a revived Local Government Finance Bill to be presented. So, funding joins social care in the consultative long grass.

We have heard little about devolution or reorganisation since the election and it is hard to imagine a government with a slim majority and a packed legislative timetable taking anything very radical on.

On one level this is worrying: issues like social care funding grow more urgent with every passing month and the absence of a plan B on business rates means we cannot be sure how local government will be funded after 2020. That makes sensible planning harder than it should be. Moreover, the immediate impact of these policies stalling is likely to be a re-concentration of decision-making in the DCLG and the Treasury.

Perhaps we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope. One feature of this summer’s elections that has dropped out of the popular narrative has been the stark contrast between Conservative fortunes in May and June.

We all know what happened in the General Election, but we should not forget that only six weeks earlier Conservative county councils were re-elected with enhanced mandates. We also saw the first elections for six potentially high profile new metro mayors.

This opens up an interesting new political dynamic. Could this change the balance of power within the central-local relationship?

If local government looks to flex its muscles on the issues it is already unhappy about, will a weakened central government be forced to respond?

What is the potential for councils to work more effectively with their local MPs to form effective lobbying groups, for instance?

In the week of the Local Government Association conference it feels like the right time to think about how local government as a sector responds proactively to those challenges which are not being driven from the centre.

There is still some intellectual heavy lifting to be done. Many in the sector were sceptical about 100% business rate retention for example. But what alternative are we proposing? Two-tier areas disliked the combined authority plus elected mayor model of devolution. But what other ways of providing leadership and accountability were suggested?

Local government is by its nature varied and variable and that is one of its strengths. We should not be looking for single solutions across the whole of local government, but that does not mean we should not be putting forward ideas, coalescing around core principles and identifying points of consensus and difference.

Speaking to policy leads in LGiU member councils across the country, we sense a growing desire for local government to form its own ideas and lead by example rather than wait on Westminster.

I am not suggesting we are somehow going to see a complete upending of the political hierarchy in this country any time soon, or that we will see a smooth transition from national to local leadership.

There is no guarantee local government can begin to drive the agenda. But this is as good a time as any to try.

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

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