Friday 27 March 2015

The future of local government should be an election issue

Readers may be interested In this editorial from the Local Government Chronicle LINK :

“Britain is walking tall again,” declared George Osborne in his Budget statement last week. For much of the past five years local government has felt a long way from walking tall after being targeted in a series of cuts that have diminished councils’ ability to provide for their local populations. “Local government is walking small and lean,” is a fair representation of its fate.
The chancellor made much in his speech of the projection that in 2019-20 public spending, as a share of gross domestic product, will be at the same level as it was in 2000, three years into the Blair administration. However, this line from his speech – a response to the critics accusing him of taking public spending back to 1930s levels – hardly tells the whole story.
Further swingeing cuts take place in the next few years before, according to the Treasury, spending perks up in what is set to be the year before the next general election. Any respite from austerity seems a long way away.
Councils will contrast their current position with that of 15 years’ ago. Their spending power is far lower, at a time the ageing population and growing awareness of the scale of need in children’s safeguarding leads to a far greater demand for services.
The Local Government Association this week revealed a projection stating that adult and children’s care would take up over 60% of councils’ tax revenue in 2019-20, leaving far less available for other services. Environmental services, libraries, roads, regulatory services and culture, in particular, face a very rough ride.
Little wonder then that the sector has been making its case for a sea change in both the government and the public’s attitude to the sector. Shortly before the pre-election purdah begins, this week saw the LGA launch its Future Funding campaign to raise awareness of the 40% budget cuts councils have experienced in the past five years and warn that we face “difficult decisions about which services continue”. Both it and the Special Interest Group of Metropolitan Authorities have produced slick but powerful videos explaining councils’ financial predicament.
Some may note the irony of a sector spending money on publicising the fact that it has little money. However, this expenditure really is a drop in the ocean. It is vital that everything possible is done to make the public – the voters – aware of the impact of councils’ financial hardship. This is not to make a party political point; it is equally entirely right that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats point out the impact of the state running a massive deficit.
As Rob Whiteman points out, election debate too often takes the form of a lightweight and unbelievable soap opera. Discussion has focused on Ed Miliband’s two kitchens, with too little debate on the housing crisis which means that far too many people have no kitchen of their own at all. Sector leaders need to make their case loudly and clearly in an election crucial to local government’s destiny.

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