Opinion: What is keeping councils awake at night?

The Local Government Conference met in conference in Birmingham last week.

I am slightly (only very slightly) embarrassed to confess that I have attended every conference since the LGA was created in 1997. In that first year the conference (in Manchester) ran from Tuesday until Friday. There was a gala night on the set of Coronation Street (this is apparently a television soap opera for those of you too busy each evening with your politics).

John Prescott and Gordon Brown turned up to praise the new body’s birth and the role of local government (delicious irony in hindsight), John Bird and John Fortune did a live skit on its bureaucratic structures and we all networked long into the night.

We were cheerful: the powers and roles lost under Thatcher and Major looked as though they might now be restored.

In every way this year’s conference was a much more sober affair: it was all over by Thursday night and the optimism we all felt in 1997 was not even a distant memory.

Indeed there was a spectre. Local government is threatened as almost never before.

While the Localism Act threw local government a few bones, Govism has started gnawing away at its heart by denying local authorities a role in schools.

Meanwhile, the Government decision to devolve council tax benefit might well have looked delightfully localist until you spot the 10% cut that comes with it – a cut that cannot, the Government says, be passed onto families or the elderly. The effect is either to ensure that the cut is passed on in its entirety to the minority who are unprotected (in some cases eliminating their benefits altogether) or absorbed by councils already reeling from the accelerated cuts delivered by Pickles.

The change is clearly rushed. Ministers have not been fully briefed on the consequences on the ground, nor have they been warned that councils will anyway struggle to introduce the new computer systems that will be needed to take on this new role.

But if this is Banquo’s Ghost, the future of social care is Macduff. Quite simply, the very future of local government as a provider of care is now in doubt.

Demographic changes (we live healthier lives, smoke too little and have better medicine) mean that there are every year more and more elderly people.

Couple this with long term restrictions in funding and a crisis emerges – a crisis which could engulf the largest discretionary function remaining with local government.

Some now seriously say that local government may have to hand over social care to the government if there is not a fundamental reassessment of funding.

So by the time we get to the 2015 LGA conference – just 5 years since the last General Election – it is perfectly possible that the two most important local government services – education and social care – may have been taken over by central government.

1997 now looks like a golden age of local government.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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This entry was posted in Local government and Op-eds.


  • jenny barnes 4th Jul '12 - 3:08pm

    the ruling class has never really liked local government. If you go right back to the Norman invasion, parish councils are kinda the remnants of the anglo saxon governance, while central government is of course the Norman barony & feudal system. It’s a potential source of opposition to elective dictatorship. It seems that in any case local goverment elections pay more attention to national than local issues anyway.

  • Chris white 5th Jul '12 - 1:50pm

    I’m not sure it is all finance. The battle to nationalise schools stems from an innate distrust of local solutions. While it is true that some local education authorities have not helped the argument, the solution was to bring them up to standard rather than sideline them and invent a new unelected intermediate tier – which is where the Gove proposals are going.

    The other problem is that central government just doesn’t get local government. The civil service stream is rarely tainted with local government officers – thus allowing Whitehall to look down on Town Hall.

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