What a year!

By Martin Ford and Ann McGauran | 15 December 2020

January

In the beginning of 2020 was the word, and the word was Brexit. That was mostly all we ruminated on in back in those (almost) halcyon days, when the sector’s ‘to-do’ list appeared – relatively – easy-peasy through the rear view mirror compared to what we now know was hurtling towards us.

But we were exercised by three other words. Business rates retention. With the Government having recently been re-elected with a majority of 80, this was expected to be considered as part of a ‘fundamental review’ of the business rates system pledged in the Conservative manifesto.

We were also expecting a ‘devolution revolution’ to channel resources to the ‘red wall’ areas that were so vital in enabling Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep the keys to Number 10.

So a devolution White Paper would be just round the corner, n’est pas?

February

(Lack of) money, money, money was the refrain, with the publication of the annual LGiU/The MJ finance survey. LGiU – and everyone else for that matter – called the state of local government finances ‘dire’.

But it seemed some councils had cash to spend. A National Audit Office report urged the Government to look at the framework under which local authorities buy commercial property to generate income. Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier warned of councils ‘acting as investment bankers’. Surely, as [sector expert] Beyonce said with authority, it’s a case of bills, bills, bills.

March

Coronavirus hit. Whack!

With the UK under red alert, directors of public health were working round the clock to deal with what chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) community wellbeing board Cllr Ian Hudspeth called ‘a rapidly evolving situation’.

The Government was warned by those in social care, public health and communications that councils would need more resources to cope with the growing threat.

Meanwhile, Birmingham City Council cast around for an interim chief executive after its hunt for a permanent boss ended in failure.

April

As the scale of the crisis grew, councils reported ‘real and continuing difficulties’ with the supply and quality of personal protective equipment (PPE). Local government secretary Robert Jenrick was understood to have lobbied health secretary Matt Hancock for parity with the NHS, and health ministers pledged to ‘beef up’ supply further.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to council chief executives thanking them for the progress on housing rough sleepers amid the pandemic. Whitehall pondered suspending Section 114 rules, with at least 10% of councils understood to be at risk of financial meltdown.

May

The MJ exclusively reported that central government excluded local partners from key intelligence and failed to share enough information, hampering the response to coronavirus.

We also revealed that Woking, South Norfolk and Craven DCs were likely to be the hardest hit when it comes to lost income during lockdown. Councils in England were told they would be given £300m to drive forward testing and tracing.

After having being somewhat on the back burner as a concern, Brexit popped up again, with a secret report by the C-19 National Foresight Group revealing that a no-deal variety, on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis, could leave the UK’s emergency provision overwhelmed.

June

An overstretched sector caused MHCLG to backtrack when it hit out at ‘undeliverable’ Government shielding data requests. The Association of Directors of Public Health said Government plans to lift lockdown were premature and ‘misguided’ and leader of Croydon LBC, Cllr Tony Newman, announced he believed the local authority could avoid issuing a s114 notice, despite facing a £60m overspend. Nothing to look at there.

Council leaders in Lancashire were told they would need a simplified council structure before they could press ahead with devolution ‘amid growing signs Government enthusiasm for devolution is rising’. A case of all systems go, then.

July

Jenrick was ‘the man with the plan’ according to The MJ’s front page as he announced an income guarantee for councils and more time for tax deficit repayments.

While battlelines were being drawn by districts and counties over reorganisation, the LGA opted to don its tin hat and hunker down until the whole thing blew over.

And signs of money troubles emerged at Croydon LBC as The MJ exclusively revealed the council had approached MHCLG about its finances. Talking of money, Chancellor Rishi Sunak handed councils another £500m…but then offered little extra in his Summer statement, published the following week.

August

The Government launched its proposal to overhaul the planning system. A proposed zonal system with automatic consent in some areas set alarm bells ringing. Housing targets that would pave over the green fields of the South while simultaneously leaving the North with no homes to live in drew the ire of MPs, forcing a rethink.

Nottingham City Council was rocked by a public interest report into its wholly-owned company Robin Hood Energy by auditors. It wouldn’t be the last of the year.

In the small matter of the global pandemic, test and trace was rolled out to all English councils after they outperformed the national system, while Public Health England was scrapped. Well, someone had to carry the can for pandemic failures.

September

The Prime Minister launched the COVID marshals scheme – much to the confusion of councils, who were supposed to be running the show. They were also handed responsibility for dishing out support payments those asked to self-isolate.

Following a grand tradition, the Recovery and Devolution White Paper was delayed – again – while pitched battles between districts and counties continued in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset who were invited to submit reorganisation plans.

SIGOMA members revealed their spending curbs in further signs of the toll taken by COVID-19 on local government finances. Amid a surge in migrants making the perilous journey across the Channel, a review was launched looking at making the transfer scheme compulsory.

October

In what was clearly the highlight of the 2020 local government calender, the month kicked off on a high note with The MJ’s Achievement Awards, which crowned Aberdeen City Council authority of the year as the sector’s heroic efforts were recognised.

Following in our footsteps, the Queen issued a slew of honours, including a knighthood for Kent CC leader Paul Carter. The Government began stumping up funds for cities as the number slipping into tier three COVID-19 restrictions grew.

Wrangling with Manchester led to a stand-off between Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson. Boris won, but then gave them the money anyway.

Auditors issued a public interest report into Croydon as the borough’s financial woes continued.

November

In the rollercoaster ride that is lockdown Britain, November began with another national lockdown for England, and ended with the approval of the first COVID-19 vaccine.

In between, the public sector exit pay cap came into force and promptly faced legal challenges from a host of unions. Croydon finally issued its first – but not last – Section 114 notice of the year, while Stevenage was named as the most financially vulnerable district authority in an index put together by Grant Thornton.

After a hard night crunching the numbers in his hoodie, Rishi served up his Spending Review, unveiling a levelling up fund and financial boost for local government – as long as they raise council tax rates.

December

England emerged from lockdown and pretty much everyone was put back into the most restrictive tiers. Unless you lived in Cornwall.

Stratford-on-Avon DC threatened legal action before backing down having thought about it over the weekend.

Liverpool City Council mayor Joe Anderson stood down on unpaid leave following his arrest, while Croydon knocked out its second s114 and asked government for a capitalisation direction to balance the books, as Spelthorne – the bad boys of commercialism – called for a finance peer review.

Birmingham is once more searching for a chief executive while the word on everyone’s lips is Brexit.

Shall we just write off 2020 and start again in January?

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