District councils: worried about funds and housing

Chris White (centre) talking about Brexit











District Council leaders met in Lichfield late last week for the District Council Network conference. The DCN is part of the Local Government Association – which comprises most English and Welsh councils – and is a group set up to concentrate specifically on issues affecting district councils. There are similar groups for counties, metropolitan authorities and London boroughs.

Representatives in Kenilworth were clearly bruised by the decision of ministers to plug some of the adult care services funding gap facing county councils by transferring funds directly from districts.

Phrases like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ were used more than once at the conference, with some justification: council tax increases and transfers between local authorities are no way to manage a national funding crisis which too few people, including the Liberal Democrats, took seriously even after the point at which the warning signs were unmistakable.

Apart from money it was largely, for Districts, housing and planning. There is clear nervousness about the impending new ministerial power to direct authorities to produce a joint local plan (hardly surprising given the careless abolition of structure planning by the Coalition) or by inviting county councils to take over the planning powers of laggardly districts: relations between districts and counties are always tense at best but red rags were clearly being spotted.

The Housing Minister, unusually delivering a speech with content, warned district councils that they must not be afraid to take tough decisions on housing numbers and that new powers to get a step change in housebuilding are on the way.

The housing White Paper is due tomorrow. Weekend kite-flying is suggesting that the Government has recognised that home ownership is no longer a realistic ideal for many and that attention should be paid instead to the rented sector. There are also continuing reassurances about the Green Belt, which will as ever be difficult to square with higher building targets.

Finally there was Brexit (my own speaking slot!) To date, most districts have not responded to the LGA’s survey about the potential impacts of leaving the EU and, of course, with the Government in continuing disarray, it is possibly too soon really to tell.

There are three key issues for councils: first protecting and replacing EU funding beyond 2020, second dealing with the labour shortage caused by crude controls over migration and third devolving repatriated EU powers. In the last case, the likelihood, as ever with the UK, is that Brussels will simply be replaced by Whitehall.

My fear is that a typical district council might, by 2021, have less money to play with, fewer people wanting to empty the bins and no more say in local government rules than it has now.

That’s something the LGA – and the Liberal Democrats – will have to try and prevent.


* Chris White is a member of the Liberal Democrat Voice Editorial Team, a Liberal Democrat Councillor from St Albans and Deputy Leader of the LGA Liberal Democrat Group.

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One Comment

  • Richard Underhill 1st Jul '17 - 10:53am

    Agreeing with Tim Farron and many others that there is a need for substantial numbers of housing units and noting that the dispossessed tenants of Grenfell Tower described their apartments as “houses” rather than “flats” we should give a little time to housebuilding on Channel 4 and More 4. “Grand” Designs and “Grand Designs Revisited” are not always grand, but explains housebuilding techniques along with frequent practical difficulties. The presenter is usually cautious, but this week used the word “hero” for a Cumbrian man with a steel-working expertise who wanted to keep his employees in work during the recession around 2010.
    Working in steel with skilled workers he was able to build a house on site in 20 days because most of the work was done offsite in his factory. 22 years of detailed design work had produced a method which included internal fittings such as electric points, carpets etcetera (known as second fit) needing only reasonable access for the large components to be driven to site and installed using a crane. Internal components were wrapped in plastic sheeting to protect them from the Cumbrian weather for the five days they were on site before the roof went on. Internal walls were not structural and could be moved at the occupants desire as their family needs changed. The building demonstrated even included a lift, surrounded by a staircase (in steel of course) from the ground floor to the upper one, clearly optional.
    Precision is essential throughout and achieved. One year on does his wife like the house they are now living in? Yes.
    Some New Zealanders are adopting the technique to build in an earthquake zone with an additional cushion to absorb future shocks.

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