We must take stock

By Bob Neill | 06 May 2020
  • Bob Neill

Life after coronavirus will undoubtedly be different. Already, the pandemic has reset the deck with the practical and logistical challenges of living in a lockdown, forcing us to reassess with fresh thinking our approach to things like remote working, who we define as key workers, and how we respond, both in a domestic and international sense, to the global threats of the future.

This is something to be welcomed, with a grown-up, public discussion on lots of these matters long overdue.

In the wash-up exercise that will inevitably follow COVID-19, I suspect and hope there will be a renewed focus on local government. Even at this early stage of what will be a long process of reflection, a great number of comparisons have been made to our international counterparts and the role that localism has played.

Take, for example, Germany, regarded throughout this crisis as Europe’s top in class in terms of its coronavirus response. Although much of our attention has been on Angela Merkel, domestically far more of the focus has been on the decisions taken by regional figures like Markus Söder, Bavaria’s minister president, who have come to the fore in recent months.

The role he and others have carved out for themselves, and the way in which they have tailored their response to the specific challenges their respective municipalities face, stands in stark contrast to the limited autonomy elected mayors have been able to exercise at home.

There is much to be learned from some of the devolved systems abroad, where local leaders have had the power and leeway to react more nimbly and innovatively to COVID-19 than the comparatively centralised frameworks of Government in places like Britain and France.

Local authorities have responded admirably, working at breakneck pace to implement new systems to distribute funding to businesses, identify and deliver support for those especially vulnerable, and adapt their services to meet changes in demand. Councils are at the vanguard of our fight against coronavirus. It is incumbent on all of us in Westminster, backbencher and minister alike, to listen to, and act on, the experiences being reported at the coal face.

Arguably the most pressing of these, and the one many leaders and chief executives are most animated about, is funding. Although the two recently deposited tranches of additional cash are welcome, as is the pragmatic decision to postpone changes to the business rates retention scheme, given the extra expenditure, loss of budgeted income, and inability to deliver planned savings, the shortfall confronting many authorities remains a considerable concern.

With it looking increasingly unlikely that life will return as usual, or at least not for some time, councils will have to acclimatise to a new normal.

As the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) made clear at a recent meeting of the Local Government Select Committee, once this is over, ministers must take all of this into account and oversee a much more fundamental review of local government finances, at last putting it on to a sustainable footing.

There will, of course, be further challenges to contend with over the coming weeks, all of which will require more expense.

One we already know about will be the reopening of refuse and recycling sites, albeit under a controlled process that may potentially require pre-booking or additional security to ensure social distancing. Another is the role local government will play in helping to trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic has represented the greatest of tests for the sector. Once it has subsided we must take stock.

In the grown-up, public discussion that I hope will follow, we should give serious thought to what is expected of local government, how it is funded, and the means by which we improve outcomes – in good times and bad.

Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee

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