Delegates are gathering at the District Councils’ Network (DCN) Conference in Hertfordshire this week at a time of great pressures on the local state and uncertainty around districts’ future powers and roles.
This week will also mark a year since the invasion of Ukraine, a war that saw districts taking the lead in housing and supporting refugees.
And in a year when those refugees looked to district councils and their communities for aid, and will increasingly seek to be rehoused, the cost of living crisis has steadily worsened. This is happening in tandem with the economic hangover effects of the pandemic in local economies.
Local government reorganisation is also leading to the demise of a districts in three swathes of England at the end of next month, with the abolition of seven district and borough councils in North Yorkshire, six district councils in Cumbria and four district councils in Somerset.
Meanwhile, the devolution revolution, including the development of county deals, continues to shape up and deepen, but is leaving some districts voicing dissatisfaction and unease. Four district councils in Norfolk have written to the leader of Norfolk CC Andrew Proctor threatening to take the county’s handling of the county deal to judicial review.
The councils say the county has failed to consult with them. Breckland DC’s leader Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen, who is also the chair of the DCN, believes the agreed deal is neither strong enough nor ambitious enough, and he said he would have preferred a directly-elected mayor model for Norfolk.
This has all the hallmarks of an existential crisis for districts. What lies ahead? Former chair of the DCN Cllr Sharon Taylor became a Labour peer in the House of Lords last October. She introduced the second reading of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in the Lords last month, and the Bill begins its committee stage in the upper chamber this week.
She told The MJ the battle by districts to be consulted on devolution deals was ‘a very hard-fought amendment as a clause in the Bill, so now if there is a proposal for a county authority there are provisions for districts to be consulted’.
She was pleased to see that an amendment was added at the Commons stages of the Bill to make sure that district councils do have a voice in the governance of County Combined Authorities (CCAs), but is not sure the legislation should set a national model for what a CCA looks like. She added: ‘I’ll want to be strengthening the Bill to make sure that isn’t the case, and that local residents and leaders who know their area best get the powers they need to deliver on their ambitions.’
Key areas for peers to focus on that are crucial to the functions of districts include housing, planning and how infrastructure is funded.
Cllr Taylor is highly critical of the wooliness of the term affordable housing, and pointed out that she prefers to look at ‘social housing specifically, and the role of social housing in levelling up’.
She added: ‘Having a secure home base is the fundamental building block of any sort of levelling up. I think that’s a missed opportunity in the Bill as well.’
Neither is she a fan of the Bill’s centralised approach to planning and its national development management policies, with what it describes as ‘general’ development control polices removed from Local Plans.
She added: ‘We’ve put some probing amendments down to look at what the Government’s intentions are on that and where they see the hierarchy of plans from the national development management policies, the local development plans and so on, and then neighbourhood plans.
‘How [do] they [the Government] see that hierarchy working? We’ll want to be testing that out at committee. Any sort of national development plan overriding a local development plan would be a retrograde step in my view.’
On cash for regeneration, peers will be poring over the proposals for an infrastructure levy. She added: ‘We are all concerned about this. If the infrastructure levy is a consolidation of S106 and Community Infrastructure Levy and delivers more for infrastructure to be locally spent, well and good. If it’s going to be scarfed up by Treasury for national infrastructure projects I don’t think that’s a good idea. We need to have a close look at that and see what the intentions are.’
Moving to the financial outlook for districts, the recent Local Government Finance Settlement confirmed districts will get an 3% uplift on their spending power. But DCN finance spokesperson Cllr Peter Fleming pointed out that the total increase in support lags behind inflation.
There is a sense amongst districts that they operate under tight constraints on their powers to raise council tax despite generally managing their finances well. Yet three councils in financial difficulties, Croydon, Slough and Thurrock, have been able to raise council tax in varying amounts beyond the referendum limits.
Cllr Fleming told The MJ districts have a ‘two-pronged message’ for government on finances and investment. The first is for more financial freedom. ‘What we’re asking for is the freedom to be able to either raise money ourselves, or go out there, be commercial, and regenerate our places.
‘We’re the closest part of local government to the public that we serve. And so that freedom would really allow us to actually not be a drain on the Exchequer, not be necessarily a drain on our residents, but actually go out there and really deliver on some of those key themes that that the Government want us to.’
His second message is for a focus on investing money to keep people healthier for longer and reduce the overall cost of caring for older people: ’Let’s stop people getting ill in the first place. And stop that really expensive care that’s needed at the far end.’
Cllr Bridget Smith is leader of South Cambridgeshire DC and vice-chair of the DCN. Setting out her sense of the distinctive role played by districts, she told The MJ: ‘Most district councils and certainly South Cambridgeshire do way more than what are their statutory responsibilities. Actually we put vast amounts of effort and money into doing other stuff, and doing it really well.’
She added: ‘What I think is special about district councils is our flexibility and our ability to react really quickly to situations. Covid was one example and the crisis in Ukraine is another, where within a matter of days if not one or two weeks we had essentially reorganised the whole council in order to deal with the crisis.
‘We have 106 villages in South Cambridgeshire So when Covid hit, we had community groups set up in all of them within three weeks. All of them had access to money. All of them were established to get medication for vulnerable people, knew who the vulnerable people were, and were able to start getting food and support to people. Big organisations can’t do that.’
Her district has more Ukrainian guests – over 800 – than any other district in the country, and has had to employ specialist staff, particularly to deal with the rehousing of people as hosts need to stop doing it.
She cites the cost of living crisis as another very good example of districts being able to respond quickly. She said austerity meant that much grassroots support in communities disappeared, with thresholds for intervention getting higher and higher - leaving districts often as the first point of contact.
Her council is planning on ‘really upping our game on what we’re going to be doing to support our residents’.
She added: ‘We’re looking at setting up sustainable food networks, setting up new foodbanks, helping people to grow their own food, getting more involved in the recycling of food that would have gone into food waste, and putting a lot more resource into debt prevention.’
Returning to Cllr Taylor and the Bill, she said she will of course be looking at the legislation from a wider perspective than solely that of districts.
But she added: ‘I will be wanting to ensure that whatever governance mechanisms are put in place, and whatever the structure of local government is in the future, there’s the opportunity for our district councils - which have delivered fantastically through Covid, and prior to that on regeneration and economic development - to get a clear say in how the governance of areas is being taken forward. So that will be my aim.’