There are few moments of satisfaction in this grim pandemic. One that was memorable was when State Governors of all parties pushed back on the grandiose claims of President Trump that he was in ‘total charge’ of the US. We had our own moment here when three of the four nations refused to go along with the relaxing of the ‘stay at home’ mantra. However, the cold reality is that over 80% of the UK’s population is under the centralised control of Whitehall during the COVID crisis.
As the weeks turn into months it is evident from the disregard of care home staff and residents, school admissions amd the lack of an effective ‘test, track, trace, isolate’ policy that centralised control by the NHS, Public Health England and the Government simply doesn’t work. Sadly, unlike other countries the continuing love affair with the giant outsourcers makes Government ministers impervious to the need for local solutions.
There is no doubt that many councils have played a critical role and not just as the provider of vital services. Council leaders such as Tudor Evans and Abi Brown in Plymouth and Stoke respectively have played a key role in boosting local business (check out call4fish if you want to see Tudor’s role in encouraging the nation to eat Plymouth fish).
What is however also evident is that this crisis has blown a huge hole in the patchwork quilt that was local government finance. Not only has it exposed the dangerous reliance on an outdated property tax and an unrealistic burden on local businesses it has collapsed the strategy of many councils on building a revenue stream from services and commercial investments. It has led to councils such as Windsor and Maidenhead joining hard pressed councils such as Liverpool and Stevenage in raising concerns about their financial position. It would indeed be a supreme irony if the Queen was unable to get her bins emptied at Windsor Castle.
It hasn’t helped that the Government now appears to have gone back on its word to council leaders to support the extra financial costs associated with supporting its local communities during the early stages of the pandemic. And the blunt truth is that a politically fragile Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State at MHCLG, no longer commands enough political support to argue their case in Cabinet.
So perhaps inevitably local government will have to make its own case and build a coalition to ensure that the age long scandal of local government is finally resolved.
With the deferred elections from this year the comprehensive nature of next year’s local elections gives councillors an intriguing opportunity. The main parties represented at the LGA could turn those elections into a mini referendum on fair funding for all councils. It would be a golden opportunity to agree a joint statement on what is needed for effective local services. There will always be political debate on how the money is spent but we desperately need to get away from allowing central government to play one set of councils off against another. Certainly, we can look for powerful allies. Business is rightly determined to end the farce that business rates have become and any form of recovery of the high street needs an end to the discrimination of physical as opposed to on-line shopping. The whole nation wants to see a long term solution to the scandal that is social care. As Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester has consistently argued we need a National Care Service commissioned by local councils but funded nationally. And the Treasury desperate to fill huge funding gaps may cast a more critical eye over the performance of high spending and low achieving government departments.
Some words of caution. We need to be careful not to advocate the replacement of a national and unresponsive bureaucracy with a local one. The COVID crisis has seen a groundswell of community interest and involvement that needs to be nurtured into the future. Councils need to be much more flexible about involving staff to provide solutions. The Dutch ‘Buurtzorg’ system of social care is a good example where staff involvement can create much higher levels of customer care and satisfaction. The political parties also need to become much better at attracting more talent and diversity for the role of councillor and especially council leaders. I know full well the challenge but we can only speak for our communities if we include all voices in the council chamber.
Winston Churchill famously remarked ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ We should use this current one to rebuild local government, properly funded, ambitious and strong advocates for their localities.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics