It’s not all Local Government’s Fault! Why successive national governments must take a lot of the blame!
It is not a recent problem, aggravated by the time consuming and damaging complete pre-occupation with Brexit. Since before 2010, when the austerity funding seriously kicked in, national government has shifted responsibilities to local government, passed over issues which it has found too difficult to resolve, and sought to distance itself from unpopular challenges and policies.
People on the inside may argue how and when the process of dodgy transfer began, but I remember the transfer of alcohol licensing to councillors from the Magistrate’s Courts during the Blair years. It was heavily resource intensive, required councillors to act in a quasi-judicial role and was not accompanied by a transfer of funding.
The funding issues are quite important. As well as the transfer of functions without funding, there has been for many years a funding cap imposed on the amount which council tax can be increased. The amount has varied little over the years, generally having some relation to inflation, and has varied between 3% and 4.99%, latterly requiring a vote of council tax payers if the increase proposed exceeds the cap. This was further complicated by “deals” offered to increase government grants by a certain percentage if councils froze the council tax for an agreed period. This measure was begun by the coalition in 2010 and extended year by year, an offer in 2012 being available till 2016.
One of the better decisions Surrey County Council made was not to accept this freeze grant, as it predicted, rightly, that the effect would be also to freeze the base figure on which future years’ council tax was founded- so that a 4% increase in 2016 would be significantly lower than otherwise, based on the frozen figure. Northamptonshire did accept the freeze grant, with the consequences that it can’t now balance its budget. Pressure on councils to accept the freeze grant was supposed to result in favourable regimes for those councils, but I can find no evidence that any favours materialised.
Residents will remember that in 2017 SCC threatened a 15% increase in council tax which would involve a referendum, while trying to secure a sweetheart deal with the government to secure a pilot for a new regime for the retention of business rates. Some councils, like Westminster, do very well out of business rates (unsurprisingly) so the retention of them for Surrey so they didn’t all go to central government, seemed like a great idea. In the end, SCC backed down from the planned referendum, a few councils got a bit of cash from the pilot, and it became clear that government would not bail out its tory friends. The Leader of SCC, David Hodge, got a good press at the time for trying to call out the Surrey tory MPs for ignoring the local plight, but they stood firm and it was clear there could be no bail out.
Actually, it wouldn’t have been exclusively bail out- some of the monies were owed. It is frustrating that the funds for the expansion of school places, which requires both capital and revenue, have been diverted to government pet projects like Free Schools and new Grammar School places. There were expected debts which the government failed to pay.
There are other policies which have made life very difficult for local government. The National Planning Policy Framework of 2012 made district and borough councils responsible for developing Local Plans to meet the need for future housing. The making of a Local Plan has proven to be very expensive indeed- not just a cost for staff who are at a premium for their planning expertise, but also the need to retain very expensive QC (which can be more than £1000 per hour plus VAT). None of this expense is funded by central government. Worse, there is an Orwellian double-think required to make a Local Plan, especially in rural areas. The NPPF requires authorities to discover an Objective Assessment of Needs (a very controversial figure), a number of houses to be built during the duration of the Local Plan (until 2030); but the government says that the Green Belt is sacrosanct. Yet authorities such as Tandridge cannot build enough houses without using the Green Belt, so if it has to, the government avoids the blame. Despite the heavy lobbying by local boroughs and districts of successive housing and local government ministers, this double think has become institutionalised. So while I am pretty upset by Tandridge’s Local Plan imposing 72 homes on a Green Belt site in my ward (which is also a Conservation Area) in fact most of the blame goes to national government, which is using planning inspectors, who are never elected by anybody, to push up local housing requirements without having to say how on earth the number can be delivered.
This lazy and dishonest approach characterises a number of policy issues which national government seems to have placed on the “too difficult” pile while requiring local government to solve the problem. I will list a few:
Surrey has a high number of people with learning disabilities- parts of Surrey, the east, have the highest proportion per capita in Europe. National government does not recognise this in Surrey’s funding.
Public Health staff and functions were transferred from Primary Care Trusts to County Councils in March 2013 when PCTs were abolished. Progressive cuts have meant that CAMHS, (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) sexual health provision, and services to deal with alcohol and drug addiction have been cut and cut, while government is lying about how much money it is giving for those services; at the same time it is expecting obesity prevention and ill-health prevention to be effective. Government has failed to address the severely declining numbers of District Nurses and this impacts on community services to keep older people at home- requiring significantly increased demand for Adult Social Care packages for the vulnerable elderly, which the county council is statutorily obliged to provide. The particular facet of this which should give Surrey residents pause for thought is that people with the means to pay for their own residential care are subsidising by hundreds of pounds per week those whose care is paid for by the county. That is a hidden tax on those with savings and property and is fundamentally dishonest.
Increasing difficulties in accessing primary care, and very long waits for operations like hip and knee replacements which keep the elderly mobile and active, all impact on the need for social care packages which the County Council has to fund. Government must know this, but this is the way it manages the problem. Its overall policy approach has been to cap funding and expect services to manage the increased demand for statutory services. This dishonest approach has stifled public debate, because the issues are masked by local authorities doing their best.
An example of this dishonesty arguably resulted in a terrorist attack in London.
When the Cobham motorway services were being built, I was a grumpy driver, resenting the delays to traffic, and since resenting the congestion it causes. What I didn’t know at the time was that this new facility would have a devastating impact on Surrey County Council’s budget. Because of a range of factors, including inadequate government funding for the Border Force, unaccompanied asylum seeking children make themselves known to the authorities as the lorry they are riding in stops at the service station, becoming the responsibility of Surrey’s children’s services. They frequently carry no papers and it is difficult to tell their real age. Eventually they may be placed in foster care, and the cost is met by Surrey’s council tax payers. Some funding is made available by the Home Office, but far from enough. It is a matter of record that one such asylum seeker tried to set off a bomb on a train.
I will remain a critic of the county council’s policies and its budget, but I have to acknowledge that lazy and dishonest national government has failed local government, in Surrey and everywhere else. In Surrey’s case, with huge pressure on the highway network from the siting of two airports and the busiest motorway, the cuts to come will be deeper because it has mismanaged its money, but it has also been sold short by Westminster’s duplicity. That needs to be called out.