Embracing the challenge

By Cllr Tim Oliver | 15 November 2023

Four years ago, we held the County Councils’ Network’s (CCN) annual conference in slightly surreal circumstances: in the middle of the 2019 General Election.

Clearly time flies in local government because 2023’s conference, beginning this Sunday, could quite possibly be the last such event before the 2024 General Election. 

As such, the team at CCN have put together a varied and exciting agenda which not only looks to the future but has an eye on the present too. There are numerous long-term challenges facing local government – and the country – and the network will spend the period leading up to the election arguing the importance of counties and their communities to the next Government.

But we cannot forget the myriad of challenges facing CCN members in the short term too. As our recent budget survey has shown, the sheer extent of financial challenges facing local government is casting a large cloud over the sector.

The CCN has been a prominent voice in calling for emergency resource in the upcoming Autumn Statement, alongside other key bodies in the sector. Our analysis painted a bleak and concerning picture, with our councils forecasting overspends of over £600m, and a cumulative deficit of £4bn between now and 2026. 
I have no doubt the chancellor’s statement next week will be on the minds of many CCN members this weekend, and we will continue to put forward a persuasive and evidence-based case for extra funding to get county and unitary authorities over the line this year and next, ahead of any long-term reforms to local government finance enacted by the next government.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Paul Johnson is such a prominent fixture on our screens after a budget is delivered, so it will be slightly unusual but no less compelling to hear his take on the state of public finances and how this could impact on local government at our conference on Monday morning.

Another issue firmly on the horizon of both national and local government is that of winter pressures on the health and social care system. We will be launching a new report during the conference with Newton that provides a blueprint for how to drastically improve patient flow and hospital discharge (as well as preventing people from reaching hospital in the first place) through more effective ways of working and a reasonably modest injection of funds. Care minister Helen Whatley will be reflecting on the report’s findings at the plenary session.
Of course, there are long-term questions over the future of social care reform, following last year’s necessary delay. To that end, we have former deputy prime minister Damian Green, the National Care Association’s Nadra Ahmed, and the Fabian Society’s Andrew Harrop all together to discuss what next for adult social care reform. 
Elsewhere, we have Onward’s Sebastian Payne, Demos’ Andrew O’Brien and New Local’s Jessica Studdert debating what the main parties should offer to county residents in their manifestos, as well as plenary sessions elsewhere at the event discussing the future of key agendas from net zero to the planning system.
The network will also be launching a new report on home to school transport in the lead up to the conference, which paints an extremely challenging picture for local authority budgets in the present, medium and long term. With demand and costs projected to continue to rise for transport for special educational needs and disabilities pupils, something must give. Bold and ambitious thinking is needed to address this, and I am pleased the report puts forward some robust recommendations.
Of course, we also look forward to hearing from the main parties, including the Liberal Democrats’ local government spokesperson Helen Morgan and the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities Michael Gove. I hope  he can set out the next steps for fast tracking more devolution deals to county areas ahead of the Autumn Statement.

Of course, it is easy to feel disheartened about the sheer range of issues facing local government year after year. Our conference provides delegates the chance to put their heads together to try and solve these challenges, but it also gives us three days to reflect on the innovative and ambitious things all CCN member councils do.
I am looking forward to seeing the great and good from the county world – and beyond – this weekend. I am sure we will leave on Tuesday afternoon feeling more optimistic on how CCN members tackle the challenges ahead than we were on arrival. 

Cllr Tim Oliver is chairman of the County Councils’ Network

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Health Finance Social Care County Councils Network Autumn Statement Funding