It’s time for the government to step up and empower local authorities

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In early March, as the devastating extent of the Covid-19 crisis was becoming clear, I sat on a call with government ministers and local authority leaders in York and North Yorkshire. The message delivered time and time again couldn’t have been clearer: do whatever it takes to support your communities through this pandemic and we will cover the cost. Three months later, we find that the government is backtracking on this central commitment, with potentially devastating impacts for local government.

City of York Council, like many local authorities up and down the country, has acted swiftly to support residents and businesses during this difficult time, including establishing additional emergency funds for businesses and residents facing financial hardship, with over £100 million paid out in grants in our effort to protect jobs and York’s vibrant local economy. From the very beginning of this crisis, we have worked to ensure our local businesses receive swift support from the Council, particularly those who did not meet the criteria for government support.

Whilst we welcome the £10 million of funding that has been allocated by the Government to York so far, this is simply not enough to cover the costs of supporting residents and businesses. In York, our finance team now estimate that the current funding gap is now at £24 million, with increased pressures in social care and falling income to the Council.

The potential impact of a funding crisis on frontline services, and particularly social care, is deeply troubling. In York, we are lucky to be in the position that we are not considering bankruptcy, however, many other local councils are thought to be facing this challenge in the near future if the government doesn’t act soon. The Local Government Association now estimates that councils will require up to four times as much funding as the government has provided so far.

I have written to government ministers outlining the need for financial clarity, as well as to ask for greater freedom for local councils to respond to economic pressures and provide the apparatus required for a successful recovery. This includes allowing local authorities to borrow for revenue spending and allowing for greater flexibility in major infrastructure schemes. This moment calls for a much greater commitment to localism and Liberal Democrats in local government are at the forefront of promoting this agenda.

City of York Council and local authorities across the UK have been instrumental in our response to the Coronavirus pandemic, including supporting the most vulnerable in our society. We are incredibly proud of the work our teams have done so far, with challenges ahead as we look to build back better. What is clear is that without significant Government funding, we will not be able to scale up the support needed to drive our recovery and protect services and local businesses. It’s time for the government to step up and empower local authorities to deliver a safe and sustainable recovery.


* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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  • Where should power and influence lay in our society ? How near, or far, from the individual should we seek to make decisions ? This piece seems to take the answer to that question for granted.
    When I played a lot of cricket I favoured an “In Out” field. That means you put some of your fielders very close to the batsman, and the others right out on the boundary. No one much in between. Can I suggest that as a metaphor for liberal government ?

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '20 - 10:19am

    At last, somebody else on LDV appears to be interested in the survival of local government! I was just waiting to have my ‘six penneth’ to see if anyone else would contribute.

    Now I don’t want to talk about whether there is resilience or not in a Local Authorities to meet the challenge of Covid-19. What I want to do, yet again, is to make the case for devolution in England, which is clearly behind the curve amongst the nations that still (just) make up the (Dis)United Kingdom.

    I’m not going to ‘do a Bourke’, by quoting links or statistics. In any case, I do not possess his magic formula for getting longer posts accepted by the editors. Let me just say the following.

    Local government, which once was allowed to deliver so much, has now been reduced, in England at least, to an emasculated rump. With lockdown forcing meetings to be cancelled or ‘zoomed’ and with many officers working from home, are we missing our local councils really? With so little power any more, most council and committee meetings are often reduced to posturing by the more loquacious and a chore for many, which, given the fact that, in most authorities, attendance allowances went out many years ago, they can legitimately avoid in any case, as long as they put in an appearance every six months. As for opening their mouths, why bother? In fact why bother to stand for election at all, as you can achieve so little any more?

    No wonder so many councils, especially in rural areas, appear to be one party fiefdoms, with turnouts in local elections, especially if they do not coincide with General Elections, so abysmal. How many Town and Parish Councils are crammed with ‘co opted’ or ‘unopposed’ members?

    So, let’s start by replacing the remaining County and District Councils with Unitary Authorities, offering enhanced powers to Town and District Councils, reforming local government finance, giving real fiscal authority back that successive governments have taken away over the years. Then, and only then, why not look at creating a true Federal UK by creating Regional Government in England and changing the Westminster Parliament into a UK Federal Parliament? I could say much more; but am in danger of being ‘edited’. Perhaps I might return if anyone sees fit to reply.

  • If I may pick up of @John Marriott’s penultimate paragraph, people posting on LDV often write about local government as if it is “A Good Thing”, no discussion needed, just give us more power and more money…..please !
    Well as John points out, there is quite a lot wrong with some of our local councils and he alludes to some of the main problems. Reform of local government to give power to people rather than elected elites is long overdue.
    Actually, am I the only one here who thinks the idea of a “co-opted” councilors, with power to spend public money, is an obscenity in a democracy ?

  • Peter Hirst 20th Jun '20 - 1:06pm

    I couldn’t agree more. If we see the Covid 19 pandemic as a warning for greater issues to come, more devolution is essential. Local authorities must be given the capacity and power to do far more under central direction.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '20 - 4:10pm

    @Chris Cory
    No, sir, you are NOT the only one, who would like to abolish co option. The problem for parties like the Lib Dems is that they still have a vested interest in keeping District Councils as these are now sadly just about the only allowance paying, government funded elected councils that they control, and not that many of them either. Possibly a case of turkeys voting for Christmas?

    I have always felt that, if local government wants more power, it needs to get its own house in order first. It could be painful if you have built up a base over the years, I know, but you do need to bite the bullet if you want real reform, and that applies to whatever party is in power at Westminster as well. The trouble is that they often behave like so called ‘helicopter parents’ with offspring they cannot trust to spend their pocket money wisely! Come on, guys, let them make mistakes!

  • Andrew Tampion 21st Jun '20 - 7:17am

    The reason that local government has become emasculated and also the reason that so few people vote in local elections is that most of the money is provided by central government. Which give Central Goverenment the authority to control how that money is spent. If local government had tax raising powers in their local areas, and central government taxation reduced proportionately, then local government would be empowered. Hopefully more people would vote. Restructuring by abolishing or creating District, County or Unitary Authorities is comparable to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. I appreciate that some areas are richer than others so that some formn of transfers to poor areas may be necessary.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jun '20 - 8:51am

    @ Andrew Tampion,

    “If local government had tax raising powers in their local areas, and central government taxation reduced proportionately, then local government would be empowered.”

    Would it?

    It’s more likely there would be a ‘race to the bottom’ effect as businesses pressured, with the threat of voting with their feet, local councils into offering a better deal than a neighbouring council. This already happens to some extent. If the source of funding changed, as suggested, this would get much worse.

    I’ve seen this happen in Australia. Say an airline wants to set up a maintenance centre they have a choice of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc. If the airline was dealing with the Federal Govt they’d be offered a take it or leave it deal. As the Australian States do have much more devolved power than is generally appreciated from afar, the Aussie ‘taxpayers’ end up losing out. The airline can play them off against each other.

    The same problem would arise if there were a local sales tax. Local businesses would be up in arms if a neighbouring council had a lower rate. Again there would be a race to the bottom.

    Additionally wealthy local taxpayers would indeed take a more active interest in local government. Not with the intention of improving it – but with the purpose of minimising their tax bill. Or am I being too cynical in thinking that?

    Then there is the problem that poorer areas which need to raise the most would be able to raise the least.

    On top of that we’d have to trust central government to reduce taxes nationally in the right proportion to compensate for increased taxes locally.

    The Lib Dem concept of wanting to decentralise power sounds superficially appealing. But there are big drawbacks too. You need to think these things through a little more.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '20 - 9:47am

    @Peter Martin
    You have used Australia before to illustrate your distaste for devolving more fiscal powers to local authorities. Knowing your Labour credentials and that party’s previous unwillingness to embrace devolution in England at least, that’s not surprising either.

    I cannot agree with you. Having been a councillor for many years and seeing the talent in many local government officers, not unfortunately always mirrored in its elected members, I know the frustration felt at wanting to do more for people, only to be frustrated by the government holding most of the purse strings.

    So, allow local government to raise more funds, through whatever more equitable system of finance emerges, and, yes, run the risk of their making mistakes. If real money were riding on the result of local elections, I have no doubt that turnout would improve dramatically and, quite possibly, more talented people might actually consider standing for election. Of course, that would require central government to reduce its tax take, which is, in my opinion, not a bad idea. Do many people really want any money wasted on tarting up an airliner or, in a slightly more extravagant level, on having two aircraft carriers with no planes to fly from, to give just two examples? However, what if you are feel willing to pay more? The cynic, possibly you, might counter that everyone is in favour of paying higher taxes, as long as it’s somebody else paying.

    On the question of levels of taxation, I have always believed that you get what you pay for. While in an ideal world there should be a limit on how much taxes we should be asked to pay, at the end of the day, if direct taxes need to rise, then most of us need to bite the bullet.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jun '20 - 10:13am

    @ John Marriott,

    “So, allow local government to raise more funds….”

    Yes I do want local government to be better funded. To better engage the talents of the people you mention. But I want better funding for councils in Keighley, Bolton, and Tottenham. Not just Kingston, Bath and Twickenham. The former probably won’t be able to secure their extra funding locally. The latter probably will.

    That’s why central government has to play its part and that’s why the cuts need to be restored.

    It really depends on what you want the Lib Dems to be. At the moment you’re just aiming for social groups A and B. This way, you might win some extra seats in the more wealthy parts of London suburbia but you’ll be giving up on the seats you used to hold in less affluent regions.

  • @ Peter Martin “Keighley, Bolton, and Tottenham. Not just Kingston, Bath and Twickenham.” And you could add Barrow, Workington , Tyneswide,Glasgow, Dundee and parts of the Lothians and Edinburgh etc.,

    Absolutely fair point for once, Peter. Time the Lib Dems took the blinkers off and actually read the UN Alston Report on Poverty and Inequality in the UK.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '20 - 10:36am

    @Peter Martin
    I am really not talking here about breathing life back into the Lib Dems, although, having been a member for many years, but no longer, I still have a soft spot for them, because, despite the obsessions with minority rights etc, (and that bloody coalition), their heart is generally still in the right place.

    No, just as I acknowledge that PR would not lead to a majority Lib Dem government nor devolution to hundreds of Lib Dem controlled councils up and down the country, I am supporting both PR and devolution because they are, in my opinion, the right things to do. It’s not about any party winning “some extra seats” anywhere. It’s about fairness, period, and what is right. Like the late Robert Kennedy, I dream of things that never were and ask “Why not?”

  • Peter Martin 21st Jun '20 - 10:49am

    “Absolutely fair point for once, Peter”

    Nice back handed compliment, David! Thanks anyway 🙂

  • Andrew Tampion 21st Jun '20 - 10:54am

    Peter Martin

    You are correct in saying that there is a danger of a race to the bottom: there is also a danger that politiians in some areas might seek election by promising services to their electors that they can’t afford.

    My point is that at the moment in most cases most local government in England is acting as a proxy for central government. By transferring tax raising powers from central to local government then then importance of local government is enhanced so hopefully more people would vote. Also as others have pointed out local councillors would have to take responsibility for their decisions to a greater extent. If ele4ctors aren’t happy with their councils -performance they can vote them out at the next election.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '20 - 11:13am

    @Andrew Tampion
    Your final sentence explains everything. My point has always been that governments have to allow councils to make mistakes. Goodness me, haven’t governments made enough mistakes over the years? Your other points are merely echoing what I have already said. In politics as in life in general, there is no such thing as perfection.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '20 - 3:28pm

    @ Andrew Tampion,

    You’re sentiments would have very much appealed to Margaret Thatcher. She was very much in favour of making voters in local elections pay for the policies they were voting for. Which is fine if we’re talking about wealthy areas but not so good for depressed areas which need external funding.

    In any common currency zone, money will gravitate to the wealthy areas. The job of central government has to be to do its best to equalise the economy as a whole. Central Govt funding of local government is an essential part of that process of equalisation.

    Remove the equalisation, which really should be higher than it is, and we end up like the EU with the surplus regions having more money than they can spend, and the deficit regions accumulating ever higher unrepayable debts as they struggle to keep their economies functioning.

  • Andrew Tampion 24th Jun '20 - 7:05am

    Mr Martin
    Is comparing me to Margaret Thatcher the best you can do? Really, after more than a day to think about it?
    My response is that even a stopped clock is right twice a day and in the same way if politicians whose views I do not generally agree with happen to agree with me on a particular matter then I am prepared to work with them to achieve it.
    However if you refer to my original post of 07.17 on the 21st my finalk sentence says that I accept that transfers from richer to poorer areas may be needed. Maybe needed was wrong, clearly they will be needed. The problem if the bulk of the money comes from central government is that this enables central government to impose it’s policies on local government. I believe in devolution of powers, but that means little without financial autonomy. If devolution means thaty a council adopts policies that I don’t agree with because that is what their electors voted for then so be it.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 8:52am

    @ Andrew,

    Central Govt, in a currency issuing country, is by far the most important level of Govt. The political right know that better than the left. That’s why they are keen to isolate it from the democratic process, on the one level, by binding national governments by way of the EU Treaty obligations. The Maastricht Treaty which led to the introduction of the euro and so took away fiscal and monetary control from National Govt was a huge victory for them.

    The left has been oblivious to the danger. There’s a lot of woolly thinking that somehow the nation state has had its day and doesn’t matter any longer.

    The other danger has been the tendency of the centre left to go along with the idea of devolution. Which is fine, in principle, if power was being devolved as well as the responsibility. But that can’t be the case. Central government can raise funds at will, at close to 0% interest, with only the worry of inflation as a limitation. Local government cannot. So many on the political right are quite happy to devolve as much as possible. They can then say that funding the NHS, education etc is someone else’s responsibility and not theirs.

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