Stasis seems normal in Whitehall. No Autumn Budget. A comprehensive Spending Review perhaps for one year, just as last year. No White Paper on social care despite last December’s manifesto promising ‘to urgently seek a cross-party consensus in order to bring forward…long-term reform’. No details of the UK shared prosperity fund, when it is meant to be operational in less than six months. The 2017 Industrial Strategy said there would consultation on the ‘precise design and priorities’ in 2018. The devolution and local recovery White Paper is now expected in 2021.
Local government has felt the full force of ongoing austerity since 2011. While civil service numbers have grown every quarter since the EU referendum, COVID-19 has sucked capacity from Government, leaving a bill for hundreds of billions.
The Government cannot keep kicking the can down the road. Despite manifesto commitments, there will have to be tax rises to repay that massive debt. It seems unrealistic to expect that economic growth – where is that going to come from? – and/or reductions in public expenditure will cover it. Support for well-funded public services has found a new voice during the pandemic.
Pending the Government tackling how it will ‘always balance its books’, the District Councils’ Network has outlined its main asks of the Spending Review. These are: a sustainable future for districts, reversing the decline in their spending power; greater freedom around locally responsive and accountable income, including setting discounts and increases for council tax and business rates (or whatever taxes replace them); raising other levies, such as a tourism tax and setting planning and licensing fees, replacing bureaucratic national programmes with simpler allocations to councils, which they decide how to spend; an ongoing incentive for districts in their strategic role as planning authorities for delivering new housing and proper funding for implementation – and in future– for new burdens, such as those in the Environment Bill.
Much of that will have resonance across local government. We await Government action.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC