The election – implications for local government

Posted on 19/06/2017 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

That was a surprise.

As our minds turn with weary inevitability towards another General Election in the autumn, it’s a good time to see if we can read the runes and understand what – if anything – this result means for local government.

Our Chair, Bob Kerslake, has told the LGC that he thinks that local government will not be a priority in this Parliament. That’s undeniable. A Government shoring up its position on Brexit, needing all the Parliamentary time it has for pitched battles as it forces through even the legislation it needs to run the country, will not be interested in making policy for the sake of it. What central Government intervention there is will be reactive, not setting out a grand vision for the future relationship between local and national.

If local government wants to change that relationship – by pursuing more localism and devolution, more powers, more financial freedoms – it will have to hitch those demands to matters of “life and limb” importance that Government must tackle, irrespective of any other challenges.

There are probably three such challenges:

  • The adult social care challenge. This has to be tackled, and quickly. The campaign furore over the “dementia tax” demonstrates how politically difficult this will be, however. We have no real sense beyond this about what approach Government might want to take. This is speculation, but it’s possible that a bullish local government sector, approaching Government with a sector-led solution, could be received favourably, such is the paucity of ideas at national level. Whatever happens, something will need to break on this issue before the next point on our list really hits home…
  • The financial challenge. The sector has been repeating similar lines about local finances for many years now, and Government’s response (to the extent there has been one) has tended to be a variation on the Eric Pickles line that the sector can live within its means by making efficiencies. This complacency won’t cut it any more. The yawning funding gap opening in 2019 – caused by the failure of the Local Government Finance Bill, itself caused by the snap election – will lead to council “failures” (the usually euphemism for councils going bust) and all that goes with that. Even with that immediate issue being addressed, the social care challenge makes local government’s finances essentially unsustainable;
  • The growth challenge. For Brexit to mean anything, the Government has to pursue domestic growth vigorously. The consultation has finished on the Green Paper for the national industrial strategy – this work will need to continue. Local growth is critical to this agenda – the role of LEPs and combined authorities will become especially important.

Where the sector is able to propose ideas which link directly to these challenges, it may be that Government will take action, because things being as they are, Government will not look at “local government” holistically – it will not be interested in our structures and systems.

The implications for governance here is that Government’s solutions will look quick, dirty and ad hoc. Agreements on funding will be cobbled together – possibly in individual areas – without a national framework. Further devolution deals, of a sort, might be done, but they will be focused on Government’s own priorities, not so much what is important to local areas. This all comes with inbuilt opportunities for tension over the openness and fairness of such approaches.

And of course, all of the foregoing may not come to pass at all. We may have another election in October, and a new party, or coalition – itself with dramatically different priorities. So we have to move fast.

Councillors, and those who support them, have a job of work to make sure that “moving fast” doesn’t involve making poor decisions, in an opaque way, designed to deal with immediate crises but causing more problems down the line – and this is where good scrutiny comes in.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.