Queen’s speech not much fun for local government either

The Government has long had a knack of turning a good idea into an operational nightmare. One case in point is the Queen’s Speech proposal for personal care at home. The Prime Minister has given an undertaking to find a way of ensuring that older people with the highest needs can remain at home, regardless of means.

The bill will attempt to help 400,000 people (‘guaranteeing’ free personal care for 280,000 and providing assistance to 130,000 others). Difficult to argue with? In the small print not covered by the nationals screaming about the General Election is the fact that this will cost £670 million a year, of which £250 million will be met from local government ‘efficiency savings’.

But where are these efficiencies to be found? The target for local government is already moving to 4% per annum. Put bluntly – this is a new responsibility for councils without matching funds. The Government promised not so long ago that it would never do that again.

In fact it has managed it twice in the same Speech: the Flood and Water Management Bill also imposes new duties on councils which the Government conveniently believes can be funded from savings (the Departmental Select Committee has unanimously rejected this claim).

But it’s not only over funding that Government has broken its word. Just a few years ago they were claiming that local authorities would have a new role in school improvement. Their Children, Schools and Families Bill would give the Secretary of State the power to direct councils to issue improvement notices to failing schools. So once again we are made into a local arm of central government rather than locally accountable bodies with our own local knowledge and specialist skills.

Meanwhile, the Tories are making a lot of noise about devolution and some may be tempted to see them as localisers. Those of us with longer memories in local government will recall that centralisation started with the Tories – Labour merely continued the trend.

Caroline Spelman’s plans to ban councils from publishing magazines or newspapers and Eric Pickles’s plans to do away with council chief executives do not bode well. If they are this centralising in opposition, the chances are that local powers will be centralised as never before should they be sitting on the Government benches in May.

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

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Nov '09 - 8:39am

    The culture of short-term rapid cuts is leading to long-term higher costs. The constant imposition of this sort of thing onto local government in the grounds “there must be some efficiency savings they could make” leads to cuts being made to solve an immediate budget need even though a little investigation would show the longer term implications will cost more on balance. As a simple example when I was a councillor at one point the council cut back on minor road repairs. All very well, helped achieve what was that year’s budget requirements. A few years down the line, and the minor road repairs having become major road repairs cost a lot more than would have been the case had they been done when they were still minor. As another issue, there is a constant battle between the NHS and local government Social Care to shift costs to each other on care of the elderly. PCTs will cheerfully make budget decisions which save them money at the expense of imposing more costs on Social care.

    Long term developments in society, such as the growing number of people reaching extreme old age, means the need for many of the services local government provides is growing. So, a standstill budget must inevitably means cuts in services. Few local government leaders seem willing to point his out however, preferring the cheerful “everything is going wonderfully” line in the council magazines they put out. It is not surprising, therefore, that national government can easily get away with the line “push the cuts on local government – there must be some inefficiency there”, and the public just can’t get why council tax goes up above inflation rate yet they see no improvement in services.

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