“The End of Local Government As We Know It” ?
“The End of Local Government As We Know It”?
That’s the phrase coined by Albert Bore, highly experienced local government figure and leader of the largest council in the country, Birmingham, in announcing up to £600m cuts in services over the next few years.
Is he right ? Surely this must be a polemical exaggeration, you may think. But I tend to think that yes, he is probably right.
Localism ? No, centralism gone mad
Other respected local government commentators, notably Tony Travers in LGC, have recently mourned the death of council tax, which after all is the life-blood of local government. This followed Eric Pickles’ announcement of more restraint in councils’ ability to set their own council tax level (a costly referendum is now required for any attempt to raise Council Tax above 2%, which is less than inflation!). Travers argued that this decision, together with the refusal to consider revaluation in council tax bands, means that council tax is being quietly killed off, preventing councils from having any significant control over their money-raising.
And the Government has shown a similar contempt for local government (and local citizens) over the “localisation” of council tax benefit support. You may recall that this “localisation” was accompanied by an arbitrary cost-cutting reduction of 10%. Councils were then told that as part of this “localisation” every one of them had to devise a “local” scheme, but one that could not interfere with any benefits to pensioners. And as part of “localism” they had to consult the remaining benefit recipients on how best they would like their benefits cut.
Every council in the land has been conducting a consultation with local people and council tax benefit recipients on these draft local schemes. And last week just as they almost all finished their consultations, the Government cynically announced a one-year only £100m transitional fund to cushion the blow. At one level this is obviously welcome though not enough to stop the misery the changes will cause. But at a stroke it has also undermined probably the majority of the local consultations that councils have undertaken and rendered some meaningless, as councils will now in the main be implementing the government’s preferred “localised” scheme, rather than the one they consulted on!
Council tax and council tax benefit – the story is the same: the Government reducing any room for manoeuvre for local councils – in the cynical name of “localism”. It is not localism. It is centralism gone mad.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the broader ideological argument on whether cuts in public services are essential as the Government claims. I have previously blogged that I disagree.
But whatever view you take on this, the scale of the cuts in local government finance is absolutely huge and unprecedented. It will leave most councils no option but to stop providing a large swathe of services that are currently identified as core council business.
Each council has produced its “Graph of Doom” (based on the original Barnet graph) showing how the cuts in government grant (up to 50% for some councils in the next few years) and the rising demand for children’s and elderly people’s services will squeeze out all other service provision – usually within 8 to 15 years.
This will indeed mean the end of councils as we know it. And it will be the removal of a key element of democracy and local accountability as councils become mere delivery arms for central government.
Any councillors worth their salt should be shouting from the rooftops about this slow death of local government. They should be framing their conversations with local citizens and service users to make sure that they are aware of what is happening. And they should be resisting in whatever way they can becoming the agents of the Government’s strangling of local government and its vicious cuts to local services.